WASHINGTON – The Senate on Tuesday moved toward approval of a four-year extension of a contentious anti-terrorism law after Senate leaders cut off efforts by both conservatives and liberals to change aspects of the law they said were a threat to civil and privacy rights.
Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., used a procedural tactic to deny any amendments after failing to reach a deal with opponents of the bill on what amendments should be allowed. "I have to get this done," Reid said. "We can't let this expire."
Reid said he had reached an agreement with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio on how to assure that the Senate could come could to a final vote on the legislation by Thursday and the House could vote immediately after that. The legislation covers three provisions — two from the Patriot Act that was enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — that are due to expire at midnight Thursday without congressional action.
While most parts of the Patriot Act are permanent law, two provisions were given temporary status because of their controversial nature. One gives law enforcement powers to set roving wiretaps to monitor multiple communication devices and the second permits court-approved access to "any tangible thing," from business documents to library records, that could be relevant to a terrorist threat.
The third provision, part of a 2004 intelligence act, gives the FBI court-approved rights to secretly monitor non-American "lone wolf" suspects without known ties to a terrorist group.
The White House issued a statement supporting passage of the legislation, saying it was "essential to avoid any hiatus in these critical authorities."
The three provisions have gone through numerous temporary extensions as some lawmakers and civil rights groups pushed to restrict law enforcement rights so as to protect individual rights.
The opposition to the latest extension effort was led by freshman Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a libertarian and tea party favorite who said the Patriot Act measures were an affront to personal liberties.
Paul, who asked the Senate to consider eight amendments to change the bill, occupied his seat in the Senate chamber throughout the day to stop the legislation from proceeding, even during a joint meeting in the House chamber to hear a speech from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Among his amendments that Democrats wanted to avoid was one that would have restricted authority under the Patriot Act to obtain certain gun records.
But the legislation also drew opposition from Democrats who said it was important that individual rights not be overlooked in the critical effort to thwart terrorists. "The balance between freedom and security is a delicate one," said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who joined with Paul and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in proposing amendments, including one that would have required intelligence agencies to identify either the target or the location in carrying out roving wiretaps.
The opponents of the bill drew some sympathy from one of its chief proponents, Sen. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has pushed both for extension of the provisions and changes to assure that civil liberties and constitutional privacy rights are not abused.
"Every one of us in the Senate understands that America continues to face threats of terrorism," he said in prepared remarks on the Senate floor Tuesday. But "tools are only useful if they are regularly checked and maintained. Otherwise they become blunt instruments that can do harm, rather than accomplish the job."