WASHINGTON – The House easily approved renewing a modified USA Patriot Act on Wednesday, but with the bill facing a Senate filibuster, its Republican leader began talks with the White House on instead extending the current law unchanged for a year.
The House voted 251-174 to approve a House-Senate compromise that would modify and make permanent most of the Patriot Act's 16 expiring provisions. But a group of Republican and Democratic senators is lobbying for more time to add additional safeguards on the law.
President Bush urged against any delay in Senate action. "The Patriot Act is essential to fighting the war on terror and preventing our enemies from striking America again," he said in a statement. "In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment."
Facing a threatened filibuster, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., was talking with White House officials about a one-year extension of the current law without any changes, a senior Republican aide said.
Frist's action indicated new trouble for making most of the 2001 law's provisions permanent, a priority for both the Bush administration and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill before Congress adjourns for the year.
Congress overwhelmingly passed the Patriot Act after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The law expanded the government's surveillance and prosecutorial powers against suspected terrorists, their associates and financiers.
Republicans say the country will be left vulnerable if the Patriot Act is not renewed.
"Renewing the Patriot Act before it expires in December is literally a matter of life and death," said Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla.
But the bill's opponents say the original Patriot Act was rushed into law, and Congress should take more time now to make sure that the rights of innocent Americans are safeguarded before making 14 of the 16 expiring provisions permanent.
They are pushing a temporary extension of the law so they can lobby for additional safeguards in the law. "If we enact the bill as written, a little bit of the liberty tree will have died," said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass.
While the bill's opponents did not have enough votes in the House, a group of Republican and Democratic senators is banding together in the Senate to block the House-Senate compromise.
Senate vote-counters trying to tally support and opposition for an agreement that would revise the 2001 anti-terror law were unable to precisely gauge its prospects Wednesday.
If the agreement to renew the act fails a crucial test of support, Frist was preparing to bring up his own legislation to extend the current Patriot Act for a year, according to a senior Frist aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision had not yet been made.
That would mark a victory for lawmakers of both parties who were lining up against the compromise.
They argued that the House-Senate accord would allow government too much power to investigate people's private transactions. Congress needs more time to add privacy protections, these lawmakers say.
The Bush administration and House leaders say the country is safer with the Patriot Act renewed.
"The consequence of letting the Patriot Act expire will be a boon to terrorists, because they will be able to exploit all of the vulnerabilities of our legal system that allowed them to pull 9/11 off," said Judiciary chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. "And as a result, I don't think that's the responsible thing to do."
About a dozen Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are complaining that the Patriot Act gives government too much power to investigate people's private transactions, including bank, library, medical and computer records. They also say it doesn't place enough limits on the FBI's use of National Security Letters, which compel third parties to produce those documents during terrorism investigations.
"At a time when so much of the world questions our commitment to our own values, I urge my colleagues to show the American people and the world that we will defend our country but we will do so in a way that protect those rights that make it worth defending," said Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., who called on lawmakers to reject the House-Senate compromise.
For the White House and congressional Republicans, renewing the centerpiece of President Bush's war on terror is a top priority with the midterm elections coming up next year.
Bush devoted his Saturday radio address to the subject and Frist added his voice Sunday.
The vast majority of the Patriot Act would remain in force even if the House-Senate agreement to renew the expiring provisions fails. The reauthorization language would extend for four years two of the Patriot Act's most controversial provisions — authorizing roving wiretaps and permitting secret warrants for books, records and other items from businesses, hospitals and organizations such as libraries.
Those provisions would expire in four years unless Congress acted on them again.
Included in the House-Senate accord is a measure to restrict and record the sale of products necessary to cook methamphetamine, including ingredients in many cold medicines. If passed, the act would also give $99 million a year for five years to arrest and prosecute dealers and traffickers, plus $20 million for two years to help children affected by the meth trade.
"Doing so will send a strong signal that Congress is serious about fighting the scourge of meth," said Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn.