WASHINGTON – With few if any allies, Sen. Russell Feingold dropped his effort late Wednesday to block the USA Patriot Act, clearing a path for Senate debate. But he promised to try to add new protections for civil liberties during proceedings later this month.
"I have no desire to inconvenience my colleagues or force votes in the middle of the night," Feingold, D-Wis., said in a brief statement on the Senate floor.
Feingold stuck to his objections, saying protracted talks with the White House over the law's protections for civil liberties produced only a "fig leaf" to cover weaknesses that leave people vulnerable to government intrusion.
"What we are seeing is quite simply a capitulation to the intransigent and misleading rhetoric of a White House that sees any effort to protect civil liberties as a sign of weakness," Feingold said during a floor speech Wednesday.
Feingold did not say what his amendments would propose as Congress raced to renew the act's 16 provisions set to expire March 10. But any attempt to change the legislation would face an uphill battle, according to Majority Leader Bill Frist.
"The outcome here is absolutely predetermined," the Tennessee Republican said, expressing frustration with the delay. "It's going to pass with overwhelming support."
While the filibuster was a lone endeavor, Feingold had plenty of company in wanting the 2001 terrorism law to contain more curbs on the government's power to investigate people.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Arlen Specter, agreed that the legislation before the Senate contains few new protections over those adopted in a failed House-Senate accord last year.
But, Specter said, a full makeover was unlikely to win congressional approval.
"Sometimes cosmetics will make a beauty out of a beast and provide enough cover for senators to change their vote," Specter, R-Pa., told reporters Wednesday.
Indeed, virtually every senator who had stood with Feingold last year to kill the House-Senate accord abandoned the effort this month when two of them, both Republicans, struck a deal with the White House to add more privacy protections.
Now, the legislation's supporters include the chamber's most senior Democrats, and the 60 votes required to overcome Feingold's filibuster. The Senate planned to resume debate Thursday on the legislation; the House planned to act at the end of the month.
Frist said the Senate would conduct procedural votes on the matter beginning Thursday and stretching beyond congressional recess next week. Final votes were expected to resume at the end of the month.
Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., shared Feingold's concern but said his talks with the White House had produced improvements to the law's civil liberties protections.
"In an effort like this, no party ever gets everything that they want," Sununu said.
Under the deal, recipients of court-approved subpoenas for information in terrorist investigations would have the right to challenge a requirement that they refrain from telling anyone.
Another new protection would remove 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.
A third improvement, supporters say, makes clear that most libraries are not subject to National Security Letter demands for information about suspected terrorists.
But Feingold said the new deal only makes one modest improvement over the House-Senate compromise and current law: It makes clear that there would be judicial review of "gag orders" issued with court-ordered subpoenas for information, but sets several conditions. Under one, the review can only take place after a year and requires the recipient of the order to prove that the government has acted in bad faith, Feingold said.
"That is a virtually impossible standard to meet," he said.