WASHINGTON – The House renewed the USA Patriot Act in a cliffhanger vote Tuesday night, extending a centerpiece of the war on terrorism at President Bush's urging after months of political combat over the balance between privacy rights and the pursuit of potential terrorists.
Bush, forced by filibuster to accept new curbs on law enforcement investigations, is expected to sign the legislation before 16 provisions of the 2001 law expire on Friday.
The vote was 280-138, just two more than needed under special rules that required a two-thirds majority. The close vote caught senior Republican aides in both chambers by surprise. Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., the sponsor of the new civil liberties protections, worked the House floor as representatives cast their votes.
Nonetheless, the vote marked a political victory for Bush and will allow congressional Republicans facing midterm elections this year to continue touting a tough-on-terror stance. Bush's approval ratings have suffered in recent months after revelations that he had authorized secret, warrantless wiretapping of Americans.
That issue helped fuel a two-month Senate filibuster that forced the White House to accept some new restrictions on information gathered in terrorism probes.
Republicans on Tuesday declared the legislative war won, saying the renewal of the act's 16 provisions along with new curbs on government investigatory power will help law enforcement prevent terrorists from striking.
"Intense congressional and public scrutiny has not produced a single substantiated claim that the Patriot Act has been misused to violate Americans' civil liberties," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. "Opponents of the legislation have relied upon exaggeration and hyperbole to distort a demonstrated record of accomplishment and success."
"The president looks forward to signing the bill into law," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
But the debate over the balance between a strong war against terrorists and civil liberties protections is far from over.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding hearings on the domestic wiretapping program. Additionally, Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chief author of the Patriot Act renewal, has introduced a new measure "to provide extra protections that better comport with my sensitivity of civil rights."
Despite its passage the Patriot Act still has staunch congressional opponents who protested it by voting 'no' even on the part of the bill that would add new civil rights protections. During the Senate's final debate last week, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., said he was voting 'no' because the new protections for Americans were so modest they were almost meaningless.
Such objections echoed during the House debate Tuesday, where the measure was supported by 214 Republicans and 66 Democrats and opposed by 13 Republicans, 124 Democrats and one Independent.
"I rise in strong opposition to this legislation because it offers only a superficial reform that will have little if any impact on safeguarding our civil liberties," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.
For now, Bush will be signing a package on which members of both chambers of Congress and the president can agree.
The package renews 16 expiring provisions of the original Patriot Act, including one that allows federal officials to obtain "tangible items" like business records, including those from libraries and bookstores, for foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations.
Other provisions would clarify that foreign intelligence or counterintelligence officers should share information obtained as part of a criminal investigation with counterparts in domestic law enforcement agencies.
Forced by Feingold's filibuster, Congress and the White House have agreed to new curbs on the Patriot Act's powers.
These restrictions 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.
The legislation also takes aim at the distribution and use of methamphetamine by limiting the supply of a key ingredient found in everyday cold and allergy medicines.
Yet another provision is designed to strengthen port security by imposing strict punishments on crew members who impede or mislead law enforcement officers trying to board their ships.