WASHINGTON – The Senate on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to renew the USA Patriot Act, after months of pitched debate over legislation that supporters said struck a better balance between privacy rights and the government's power to hunt down terrorists.
The 89-10 vote marked a bright spot in President Bush's troubled second term as his approval ratings dipped over the war in Iraq and his administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. Renewing the act, congressional Republicans said, was key to preventing more terror attacks in the United States.
Bush, in a statement issued by the White House while he was in India, applauded the Senate for overcoming what he said were attempts by Democrats to block the bill's passage.
"This bill will allow our law enforcement officials to continue to use the same tools against terrorists that are already used against drug dealers and other criminals, while safeguarding the civil liberties of the American people," he said.
Critics maintained the bill is weighted too much toward the interests of law enforcement.
The House was expected to pass the legislation next week and send it to Bush, who would sign it before 16 provisions expire March 10.
A December filibuster led by Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and joined by several libertarian-leaning Republicans, forced the Bush administration to agree to modest new curbs on government power.
Feingold insisted those new protections are cosmetic.
"Americans want to defeat terrorism and they want the basic character of this country to survive and prosper," he said. "They want both security and liberty, and unless we give them both — and we can if we try — we have failed."
Lawmakers who voted for the package acknowledged deep reservations about the power it would grant to any president.
"Our support for the Patriot Act does not mean a blank check for the president," said Democratic leader Harry Reid. "What we tried to do on a bipartisan basis is have a better bill. It has been improved."
The vote was a significant victory for Bush after revelations late last year that he had authorized a domestic wiretapping program provided ammunition to senators demanding more privacy protections in the Patriot Act.
Senate Democrats and a few Republicans refused to allow a vote before Christmas on renewing the law before 16 provisions expired on Dec. 31.
Unable to break the deadlock, Congress opted instead to extend the deadline twice while negotiations continued. In the end, the White House and the Republicans broke the stalemate by crafting a second measure that would curb some powers of law enforcement officials seeking information. Both will be sent as a package to Bush.
This second bill — in effect an amendment to the measure renewing the 16 provisions — would add 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.
Passed in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the original Patriot Act expanded the government's surveillance and prosecutorial powers against suspected terrorists, their associates and financiers.
The renewal package would make 14 of 16 temporary provisions permanent and set four-year expirations on the others.
The renewal includes several measures not directly related to terrorism. One would make it harder for illicit labs to obtain ingredients for methamphetamine by requiring pharmacies to sell nonprescription cold medicines only from behind the counter.
Another focuses on port security, imposing new criminal sanctions and a death sentence in certain circumstances for placing a device or substance in U.S. waters that could damage vessels or cargo.
Feingold's chief ally, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said the package was not enough to check what he described as a presidential tendency through history of "always grabbing more power."
"The erosion of freedom rarely comes as an all-out frontal assault," warned Byrd, the dean of the Senate. "Rather, it is a gradual, noxious creeping cloaked in secrecy and glossed over by reassurances of greater security."
The "no" votes came from Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., and Feingold, Byrd and seven other Senate Democrats: Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Carl Levin of Michigan, Patty Murray of Washington and Ron Wyden of Oregon.