WASHINGTON – Law enforcement officials get to keep their anti-terror tools, but with some new curbs, under the USA Patriot Act renewal passed by the House in a cliffhanger vote. President Bush is expected to sign the bill into law on Thursday.
The 280-138 vote Tuesday evening was just two votes more than needed under House rules requiring a two-thirds majority to pass legislation handled on an expedited basis.
The vote ended a monthslong battle over how to balance privacy rights against the need to defeat potential terrorists — a political struggle in which Bush was forced to accept new restraints on law enforcement investigations.
Bush was expected to sign the legislation before 16 major provisions of the law, which was passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, expire Friday.
"The president looks forward to signing the bill," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
In a sign of uncertainty over the vote's outcome, the sponsor of the measure containing the new civil liberties, Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., crossed the Capitol to lobby representatives on the House floor during Tuesday's 15-minute vote.
Despite the wafer-thin margin, Republicans declared victory as they sought to polish their national security credentials this midterm election year, trying to balance a troubled war in Iraq and revelations that Bush had authorized secret wiretapping without warrants.
"I'm glad it made it. Now it's behind us," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said after he voted for the renewal.
For some, congressional passage comes none too soon after a season of political combat that stalled the legislation and forced Congress to postpone the expiration date twice. Forced by a filibuster, Bush accepted new provisions that give people targeted in terrorism investigations stronger civil liberties protections. The Senate passed the reworked version overwhelmingly.
Republicans on Tuesday declared the legislative war won, saying the renewal of the act's 16 provisions will help law enforcement prevent terrorists from striking.
"This legislation is a win for law enforcement, the war on drugs, and for communities and families across America," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said in remarks Wednesday.
"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."
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 legislation 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 legislation 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.