WASHINGTON – Months overdue in a midterm election year, the USA Patriot Act renewal cleared a final hurdle in the Senate Tuesday on its way to President Bush's desk. But the bill's sponsor made clear that he is unsatisfied with the measure's privacy protections and far from done tinkering with the centerpiece of Bush's war on terrorism.
"The issue is not concluded," warned the bill's chief author, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa. He said he plans more legislation and hearings on restoring curbs on government power that had been rejected by the House.
The Senate voted 69-30 to limit debate and bring the bill up for a vote, exceeding a required 60-vote threshold. The Senate could pass the final measure as soon as Wednesday. The House then would vote and send the legislation to the White House.
Sixteen major provisions would expire March 10 if President Bush doesn't sign the bill by then.
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, did not vote.
First passed in the weeks after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the law had been extended twice for lack of congressional accord over the balance between civil liberties protections and law enforcement tools in terrorism investigations.
Several Democrats voted 'no' on the test vote Tuesday to protest the GOP majority's refusal to allow amendments, but said they would vote for the bill on final passage. These lawmakers included Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Still others will vote against the bill as a whole, but they stand little chance of blocking it. Led by Sens. Russell Feingold, D-Wis. and Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., they contend that the months of haggling produced few meaningful curbs on government power in the bill.
On that point, Specter agrees. Even as he urged his colleagues to vote for the Patriot Act authorization this week, he introduced a separate bill to force the government to satisfy a higher threshold for warrantless wiretaps and to set a four-year expiration date for the use of National Security Letters in terrorism investigations.