WASHINGTON – A band of Senate Republican holdouts reached agreement Thursday with the White House on changes in the Patriot Act designed to clear the way for passage of anti-terror legislation stalled in a dispute over civil liberties.
Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H. said the changes, quickly endorsed by at least one leading Democrat, would better "protect civil liberties even as we give law enforcement important tools to conduct terrorism investigation."
The White House embraced the deal even before Sununu and several other senators outlined it.
Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said the agreement would "continue to build upon the civil liberties protections that are in place but do so in a way that doesn't compromise our national security priorities."
"We're pleased that this important legislation is moving forward," he said.
The compromise focused on three areas:
--giving recipients of subpoenas for information in terrorist investigations the right to challenge a requirement that they refrain from telling anyone.
--eliminating a requirement that an individual provide the FBI with the name of a lawyer consulted about a National Security Letter, which is a secret request for records.
--clarifying that most libraries are not subject to demands in those letters for information about suspected terrorists.
While there was no immediate reaction from House Republicans, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, one of the Senate negotiators, said he had been in close touch with the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
Reaction from the Democrats was divided.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California announced she would support the changes. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, second-ranking in the Democratic leadership, appeared at the GOP news conference. He said the compromise included "significant progress" toward protecting basic liberties and that he planned to support the compromise.
The party's leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, said in statement that the agreement among Republicans "appears to be a step in the right direction."
Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., threatened a filibuster.
The senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, criticized the White House. At the same time, his office left open the possibility he would support the measure.
The law originally was passed within days of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the administration says it has been an important weapon in the government's arsenal for tracking suspected terrorists.
Renewal of the law was blocked last year when critics said its provisions shortchanged civil liberties, particularly in the cases of individuals who were not suspected of terrorist activities themselves, but might have had innocent dealings with suspects.
Also at issue was concern over the government's ability to demand information from libraries.
As a result of the deadlock, lawmakers decided to extend the old law temporarily, a short-term solution that left the administration and many in Congress unhappy.
The current extension expires March 10.
Republicans said that with the changes, the chance would be remote that any library would have to turn over information.
But Democrats said the same provision made explicit that some libraries could be forced to turn over information, adding that existing law is vague on the subject.
Other than Sununu, the Senate Republicans who had defied the president's wishes on the Patriot Act last December were Craig, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
The changes were worked out over several weeks in discussions that involved the lawmakers and White House counsel Harriet Miers, according to one Republican familiar with the compromise efforts.
Officials who discussed the issue did so on condition of anonymity, saying they did not want to pre-empt a formal announcement.
On Dec. 16, the Senate voted 52-47 to move to a final vote on the legislation, which deals specifically with 16 provisions in the act that Congress wanted reviewed and renewed by the end of last year. That was eight votes short of the 60 needed to end the filibuster.