WASHINGTON – The Senate overwhelmingly rejected an effort Thursday to block renewing the Patriot Act, the 2001 law passed weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks to help the government hunt down terrorists.
The 96-3 vote was no suprise to Sen. Russell Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who was the lone senator to oppose the law four and a half years ago and is the chief obstacle to extending 16 provisions now due to expire March 10.
Feingold, who is exploring seeking his party's presidential nomination in 2008, plans to make the Senate spend several more days on the bill and complained that Majority Leader Bill Frist had used procedural maneuvers to prevent him from trying to amend it.
"We still have not addressed some of the most significant problems with the Patriot Act," Feingold said.
At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan urged the Senate to keep up the momentum on the accord, which he said represented "a good faith effort" to improve the law.
"Yet there are still some Senate Democrats that want to continue to engage in obstructionist tactics and prevent this vital legislation from being reauthorized," McClellan said Thursday. "We hope the Senate will move ahead quickly and reject the continued obstructionist efforts."
Only Sens. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., and Robert C. Byrd, R-W.Va., supported Feingold on Thursday's vote to stop what Frist had characterized as a filibuster preventing the Senate from acting on the legilsation. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., did not vote.
The changes Feingold was seeking were amendments to set a four-year expiration date on the use of National Security Letters — demands for records issued by administrators — under the Patriot Act.
Another amendment would require the government to notify the subject of a secret search within seven days or obtain court permission to maintain the secrecy for a longer period, rather than the 30-day requirement in the legislation being considered.
Feingold said the new deal brokered with the White House makes such minor changes to the original Patriot Act that it "will still allow government fishing expeditions."
While the filibuster began as a lone endeavor, Feingold had plenty of company in wanting the 2001 anti-terrorism law to include more curbs on the government's power to investigate people.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said a full makeover was unlikely to pass Congress before March 10.
"Sometimes cosmetics will make a beauty out of a beast and provide enough cover for senators to change their vote," Specter told reporters Wednesday.
Indeed, virtually every senator who had stood with Feingold last year to kill a House-Senate agreement abandoned the effort this month after two of them, both Republicans, struck a deal with the White House to add more privacy protections.
Now, the legislation's supporters include some of the chamber's most senior Democrats, and the 60 votes required to overcome Feingold's filibuster.
Frist said the Senate planned 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 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.
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 makes only one modest improvement over the defeated 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 the government has acted in bad faith, Feingold said.
"That is a virtually impossible standard to meet," he said.
Meanwhile Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the nomination of Carol E. Dinkins to chair the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. The panel also reported to the full Senate the nomination of Paul J. McNulty, U.S. attorney for Alexandria, to be deputy attorney general.