WASHINGTON – Legislation to renew the anti-terror Patriot Act was cleared for final congressional passage Friday when House Speaker Dennis Hastert blessed a day-old compromise between the White House and Senate Republicans.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid also indicated he will vote for the bill when it comes to a vote, possibly next week.
The legislation gives federal agents expanded powers to investigate suspected terrorists in the United States, and the Bush administration has said it is one of the key weapons in the war on terror.
"I think they [the changes in the bill] were enough to make sure we can protect the American people," Hastert told reporters at Cambridge, Md., speaking of three revisions that the white House and Senate GOP holdouts announced on Thursday.
The House "should move forward with it as soon as the Senate" acts, he said. A short-term extension of the measure expires on March 10.
Passage of the bill was stalled late last year when four Senate Republicans joined Democrats in saying that it shortchanged civil liberties protections in the name of the war on terror.
Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, said the Nevada Democrat intends to vote for the bill. The Senate's second-ranking Democrat, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, is also among its supporters.
Judiciary Committee member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also said the bill had been substantially improved by the changes and she would vote for it.
Any changes made would still have to be approved by the House, but Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, another negotiator, said that with the Senate and the White House in concert, he thought the House would go along. He said he had consulted with House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. "There will be no additional negotiations," Craig said.
Sensenbrenner declined comment, but Hastert said he had discussed the bill with the chairman.
The changes, worked out over several weeks of talks, specifically with the office of White House counsel Harriet Miers, covered three main areas:
—Under the first, recipients of court-approved subpoenas for information in terrorist investigations would have the right to challenge a requirement that they refrain from telling anyone.
—The second removes a requirement that an individual provide the FBI with the name of an attorney consulted about a National Security Letter, which is a demand for records issued by administrators.
—The third clarifies that most libraries are not subject to National Security Letter demands for information about suspected terrorists.
White House 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."
But Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., a leader in opposing the act, said he would continue to fight it.
He said the deal did not provide meaningful judicial review of gag orders because such review can only take place after a year has passed and can only be successful if the recipient proves the government acted in bad faith.
The deal also does not ensure that when government agents break into homes to do "sneak-and-peek" searches that it tells the owners of those homes, in most circumstances within seven days, as courts have said they should, Feingold added.
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 had to approve two temporary extensions of the old law. 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.