Published January 13, 2015
The Senate on Friday blocked a vote to reauthorize 16 expiring provisions of the controversial USA Patriot Act.
As Congress raced toward adjournment, the bill's Senate supporters were not able to garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome a threatened filibuster by Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and other lawmakers who opposed the provisions. The final vote was 52-47.
A filibuster essentially prevented an official end to debate; the chamber cannot vote on the expiring provisions until debate ends. If a compromise on the problematic parts of the measure is not reached, the 16 provisions President Bush considers indispensable to the War on Terror will expire on Dec. 31. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said he hopes to bring the bill up again before the holiday recess.
Earlier, the Republican-led Senate scrapped a Democratic-led effort to extend the measure for three months — a move the White House has said Bush would veto, since he wants a permanent extension.
"We are going to continue to do all we can to save lives, that is the president's number one priority," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said immediately after the vote. "The president is going to continue to act to protect the American people ... we will continue to work with members of Congress on those matters."
He added: "This law has helped prevent attacks from happening by breaking up terrorist cells within the United States ... We urge them [senators] to get this done now."
The House on Wednesday passed a House-Senate compromise bill to renew the act that supporters say added significant safeguards to the law, which was enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. That compromise bill wasn't received as well in the Senate.
While supporters say the provisions in question extend the nation's ability to combat terror, opponents of them — including Democrats and Republicans — worry that there aren't enough safeguards to protect civil liberties. They note that the original act was rushed into law shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks and Congress should take more time now to make sure the rights of innocent Americans are safeguarded.
"Today’s vote is a great moment for our constitution and our democracy, and a great moment in the fight against terrorism," Feingold said after the vote.
Frist, R-Tenn., changed his vote at the last moment after seeing the critics would win. He decided to vote with the prevailing side so he could call for a new vote at any time, even before the Dec. 31 sunset date. He immediately objected to an offer of a short-term extension from Democrats, saying the House won't approve it and the president won't sign it.
"We have more to fear from terrorism than we do from this Patriot Act," Frist warned. A three-month extension "makes no sense," he added.
"When I'm going to bring it to the floor, I don't know right now. Let's continue the debate over the course of today and, if there's an appropriate time, if the chairman does fully explain this bill and people really understand it, I am very optimistic that we would be able to both get cloture but ultimately pass this bill before we leave here in the next couple of days," he continued.
Five Republicans voted against the reauthorization: Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Craig and Frist. Two Democrats voted to extend the provisions: Sens. Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
If Bush vetoes a three- or sixth-month extension, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Friday, "it will be crystal clear he's putting politics above safety."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter said in a press conference after the vote that lawmakers won't get a better bill with negotiations with the House. "It's just not going to happen," he said. "I was unhappy to see a virtual party-line vote. I think we have too many party-line votes around here."
The ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said a bipartisan consensus is needed on the measure and that the sunset provisions were included in the original bill specifically to revisit them later to make sure they're both effective and not infringing on individuals' civil liberties.
"Our goal has been to mend the Patriot Act, not to end it. Let's just fix the bill," Leahy said.
Bush, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Republican congressional leaders lobbied hard this week to secure those votes and avoid a filibuster.
They also supported new safeguards and expiration dates to the act's two most controversial parts: authorization for roving wiretaps, which allow investigators to monitor multiple devices to keep a target from evading detection by switching phones or computers; and secret warrants for books, records and other items from businesses, hospitals and organizations such as libraries.
The provisions set to expire included expanded abilities to share secret grand jury information with foreign governments and watching terror suspects longer than other federal laws provide. The rest of the overall act was made permanent in 2001, when Congress first voted on it.
Investigators will still be able to use those powers to complete any investigation that began before the expiration date and to initiate new investigations of any alleged crime that began before Dec. 31, according to a provision in the original law. There are ongoing investigations of every known terrorist group, including Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic Jihad and the Zarqawi group in Iraq, and all the Patriot Act tools could continue to be used in those investigations.
The White House and its congressional allies prefer to let the provisions expire and hold Democrats responsible in next year's midterm elections rather than let opponents whittle away at the law. The whole package passed four years ago by a vote of 99-1.
Bill opponents say, however, that the current Patriot Act gives government too much power to investigate people's private lives.
"I think there are real problems inside the Patriot Act," Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., told FOX News on Friday, including the provision that allows the government to search library records without judicial oversight.
"It's not that we shouldn't have the ability to protect the American people ... but I think we need some checks and balances. We lose to the terrorists when we give up what America is about, which is a country of freedom and rights," the New Jersey governor-elect added.
Corzine said extending the provisions would be better than letting it expire, but there are problems with funding and civil liberties in the current version of the bill. He said the bill also needs to focus spending on a threat-basis, not political whims.
"We're not doing it on a threat-basis and adequately putting money where the risks are," Corzine said.
'There Is No Middle Ground'
Before the vote Friday, Democrats took turns explaining why they thought senators should vote against ending debate on a conference report they say still needs more work.
Feingold,, the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act in 2001, argued that reauthorizing the provisions is "not a partisan issue, it is an American issue. This is a constitutional issue. We can come together to give the government the tools it needs to fight terrorism."
Despite those comments, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., argued that partisanship is obviously playing a big role in the debate.
"If 90-plus percent of the Democrats vote against cloture and 90-plus Republicans vote for cloture, it's hard to argue that's not partisan," Kyl said, noting that over 44 Democrats in the House voted for reauthorizing the expiring provisions. "It seems to me that the Senate would do well to also try to act here in a more bipartisan way and not have a partisan vote. We need to reauthorize the Patriot Act, it is a tool for our law enforcement agencies to protect us against terrorists."
He added: "If we deny them [law enforcement] the key tool, the Patriot Act, they're not going to be able to do their job to protect us. And there's no more time to stretch this out with 'maybes' or 'let's negotiate more.' You either vote 'yes' to reauthorizes it or you vote 'no.' There is no middle ground."
Frist said if the Patriot Act provisions are not renewed, the United States will be in the same position it was before Sept. 11, 2001 — without adequate anti-terrorism capabilities. But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said lawmakers should take their time now to make the law right.
Feingold and Sen. Dick Durbin cited a Friday report in The New York Times as more evidence that the government needs more oversight. That report said that in 2002, Bush authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on people within the United States without warrants.
"This body must be absolutely vigilant in our oversight of government power, and I don't want to hear again from the attorney general, or anyone on this floor, that this government has shown it can be trusted to use the power we've given with restraint and care," Feingold said.
Durbin said that it's difficult to pinpoint specific abuses of the Patriot Act because many actions are carried out in secret under the laws. He said the reported NSA activity was just one example of that.
"Whether or not we pass the Patriot Act, will the administration argue they have the authority to go forward anyway?"
Bush: Filibuster a 'Bad Decision'
On Thursday, President Bush showed his displeasure with those Democrats holding up reauthorization of all the provisions.
"The House of Representatives, recognizing the value of the Patriot Act, voted in a bipartisan way to extend the Patriot Act. And there are senators who are filibustering the Patriot Act. That is a bad decision for the security of the United States," Bush said, calling on the Senate to pass the bill "so that we have the tools necessary to defend the country in a time of war."
Chief among the critics' concerns are the National Security Letters that the FBI can use to compel the release of such private records as financial, computer and library transactions. The bill for the first time explicitly says the third-party recipients of NSLs — banks, Internet service providers and libraries — may hire lawyers and challenge the letters in court.
Feingold and his allies want more reports from the Justice Department on how the letters and other tools are used in terror investigations. They also want to set limits on how long law enforcement officials may continue to use NSLs in terror investigations.
FOX News' Melissa Drosjack, Molly Hooper, Greg Kelly, Liza Porteus, Greg Simmons and The Associated Press contributed to this report.