WASHINGTON – A tight deadline looming, the Senate on Monday advanced a four-year extension of the Patriot Act, the controversial law that governs the search for terrorists on American soil.
Lawmakers voted 74-8 to debate and vote the legislation this week, before key provisions expire on Friday. President Barack Obama was in Europe, so any extension must pass the House and Senate, then be flown overseas and signed into law before the three provisions expire.
That would require uncommon speed for the deliberative Senate, where one member can delay or block legislation. And there were opponents: Senators of both parties said the law, designed after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, would give the government too much power.
The White House urged them to work it out — quickly.
"It is essential to avoid any hiatus" in the law's powers, the Obama administration said in a statement.
The legislation would extend three expiring provisions until June 1, 2015, officials said.
The provisions at issue allow the government to use roving wiretaps on multiple electronic devices and across multiple carriers and get court-approved access to business records relevant to terrorist investigations. The third, a "lone wolf" provision that was part of a 2004 law, permits secret intelligence surveillance of non-U.S. individuals without having to show a connection between the target and a specific terrorist group.
From its inception, the law has been dogged by concerns that it represented a government power grab that could violate Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. The opposition came from an unlikely alliance of libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats seeking to limit the law's power.
Some Patriot Act opponents have suggested that Osama bin Laden's death earlier this month should prompt Congress to reconsider the Patriot Act, written when the terrorist leader was at the peak of his power.
"We were so frightened after 9/11 that we readily gave up these freedoms," said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. "We really should sunset the entire Patriot Act and protect our liberties the way it was intended by our Founding Fathers."
But the act's supporters warn that al-Qaida splinter groups, scattered from Pakistan to the United States and beyond, may try to retaliate.
"We are not out of harm's way and no one should believe that," said the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Monday's tally cleared the Senate's 60-vote threshold to move forward with debate. Senate leaders huddled into the evening to get an agreement on which amendments would be considered, and for how long, in the shadow of the deadline. Officials said the bill would have to pass the Senate by Wednesday and be approved quickly by the House if were to be shuttled to Obama and signed before the provisions at issue expire.
Even before the test vote, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., proposed an amendment that closely tracked a bill his committee passed earlier this year with bipartisan support. Co-sponsored by Paul, the amendment would require that the use of national security letters — documents that allow the government to collect financial and other records — expire on Dec. 31, 2013, if not renewed by Congress.
The amendment also would require more public disclosure and oversight on the government's use of the letters, and it would cancel the one-year waiting period before a recipient of a letter can challenge a government order to keep it secret.
The Democrats who voted to block the Patriot Act extension were Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana as well as Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Jeff Merkley of Oregon. The Republicans who voted with them were Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Paul. Also voting no was Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.