WASHINGTON – The Senate on Wednesday cleared the path for renewing the USA Patriot Act, swatting aside objections while adding new protections for people targeted by government investigations.
The overwhelming votes virtually assured that Congress will renew President Bush's antiterror law before it expires March 10. The House was expected to pass the legislation Tuesday.
The law's opponents, who insisted the new protections were cosmetic, conceded defeat.
"The die has now been cast," acknowledged the law's chief opponent, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., after the Senate voted 84-15 to end his filibuster. "Obviously at this point, final passage of the reauthorization bill is now assured."
The overwhelming support for the renewal package holds great political value for Bush, who in 2001 made the act the centerpiece of what has become a troubled war on terrorism. Underscoring its import are GOP plans already in the works to make sure nobody misses the point this midterm election year.
After the House gives its blessing, Republicans are hoping to win a second day of coverage next Wednesday with a press conference by Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. The package will receive a made-for-television enrollment — usually a routine administrative procedure in which a bill approved in both houses is prepared for the president's signature.
The House then will send the legislation to Bush, who will sign it before the deadline Friday.
The fanfare comes after a two-month standoff in which Feingold had succeeded in blocking a House-Senate compromise that would renew 16 major provisions of the law that are set to expire next week. Unable to overcome his objection by a Dec. 31 expiration date, Congress instead postponed the deadline twice while negotiations continued.
The White House and GOP leaders finally broke the stalemate by crafting a second measure — in effect an amendment to the first — that would somewhat limit the government's power to compel information from people targeted in terror probes.
That second measure passed overwhelmingly earlier in the day, 95-4. Voting 'no' with Feingold were Sens. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and the Senate's constitutional expert, Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.
The second measure added new protections to the 2001 antiterror law in three areas. It would:
—Give recipients of court-approved subpoenas for information in terrorist investigations the right to challenge a requirement that they refrain from telling anyone.
—Eliminate a requirement that an individual provide the FBI with the name of a lawyer consulted about a National Security Letter, which is a demand for records issued by investigators.
—Clarify that most libraries are not subject to demands in those letters for information about suspected terrorists.
Feingold and his allies complained that the restrictions on government power would be virtually meaningless in practice. Though small, his group of four objectors represented progress for Feingold. In 2001, he cast the lone vote against the original Patriot Act, citing concerns over the new powers it granted the FBI.
On Wednesday, the package's authors cast the vote in pragmatic terms.
"Both bills represent a vast improvement over current law," said the author of the new curbs, Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H.
Feingold, a possible Democratic presidential candidate, said: "I am disappointed in this result. But I believe this fight has been worth making."
With that, he began reading the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Then he left the chamber. Feingold later returned to read resolutions from eight states expressing concerns about the Patriot Act.
Barring last-minute problems in the House, the package was expected to land on Bush's desk for his signature before the expiration next week.
Despite the legislation's advance, deep misgivings remained even among the law's chief supporters.
"While we have made some progress, much is left to be done," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who voted for the Sununu bill.
He and Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., were co-sponsoring new legislation and hearings on the Patriot Act.
Their bill would make the government satisfy a higher threshold for warrantless wiretaps and would set a four-year expiration date for the use of National Security Letters in terrorism investigations.