The Senate is expected to pass a short term extension of the PATRIOT Act this week, ahead of the February 28 deadline for renewing several expiring provisions in the post-September 11 counterterrorism surveillance legislation.
"We're talking about a 90-day extension in order to give us time to bring it up for full debate on the floor. Obviously, we don't have time to do that this week," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga, told Fox. The senator, top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said, "I have no qualms with doing that. It gives everybody time to come up and say what they want to."
This Senate action, which would then need to be approved by the House which initially had trouble from some Tea Party conservatives and liberal Democrats but eventually approved an extension to December, extends so-called court-approved "lone-wolf" surveillance of non-U.S. citizens suspected of terrorist activity, roving wiretaps for foreign suspects with multiple cell phones, and government seizure of "any tangible item" deemed relevant to a national security investigation, or the so-called "library records" provision.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the Intelligence panel's chairwoman, said, "It would extend it to May, giving us time. It's very important that we extend it."
Feinstein, author of a proposal favored by the White House to extend the three provisions for three years past the 2012 presidential elections, said the Senate would likely take up the House-passed measure as the base bill and offer the 90-day extension as a substitute amendment.
There are two other competing bills in the Senate. One by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., would extend the provisions to 2013 but impose more judicial oversight, limit the FBI's use of controversial National Security Letters which require a business to relinquish some client information, and mandate reports from the Attorney General and Justice Department's Inspector General on the use of the three measures.
Leahy told reporters Tuesday that he would support a 90-day extension.
Republican leaders have introduced a bill that permanently extends all three measures, but that is not expected to garner sufficient support for passage.
It is likely the 90-day extension will easily pass the Senate by week's end but not without strong objections from one of the Senate's newest members, Tea Party conservative Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. Citing Fourth Amendment concerns, Paul said, "My main objection to the PATRIOT Act is that searches that normally require a judge's warrant are performed with an FBI agent's letter, a National Security Letter. I object to these warrantless searches being performed on U.S. citizens. I object to the 200,000 NSL searches that have been performed without a judge's warrant. I object to over 2 million searches of bank records, called Suspicious Activity Reports, performed on U.S. citizens without a judge's warrant."
A senior Senate Democratic leadership aide said Paul objected to members trying to pass the extension by unanimous consent, a move that usually indicates a member intends to filibuster.
Either way, Paul said his opposition is not done "lightly," adding, "I firmly believe it is a primary duty of our government to do what it can to protect the lives of its citizens. But I also believe it must in equal measure protect our liberty, and in this, our government has failed us."