Senate considers Patriot Act despite concerns

May 24, 2011
By Laurie Kellman

WASHINGTON--The tortoise-like Senate is under uncommon pressure to pass a four-year extension of the anti-terrorist Patriot Act before key provisions expire Friday. But the deadline is even tighter, because President Barack Obama is in Europe.

Any extension passed by the Senate must be sent to the House and passed there, then flown overseas to be signed into law.

So the Senate's deadline for passage is more like midweek. And that's no accident.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who not long ago vowed to have a full week of debate on the Patriot Act extension, has instead backed up the vote against a tighter deadline to limit debate over legislation some say is less necessary now that al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden is dead.

Another motivator: The Senate's weeklong Memorial Day break begins just after the Patriot Act deadline.

The White House urged the Senate to do what it typically does not: work quickly.

"It is essential to avoid any hiatus" in the law's powers, the Obama administration said in a statement.

But the Senate does not rush, even when it's clear that there probably isn't time for changes. Senators voted 74-8 Monday to begin debate on the bill.

Members of both parties demanded time to talk about their amendments, some of which would require tougher oversight on how the government uses the law's powers. Reid was negotiating Monday on which amendments would be considered, and for how long.

The legislation would extend three expiring provisions until June 1, 2015.

These provisions would 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, permits secret intelligence surveillance of non-U.S. individuals without the government having to show a connection between the target and a specific terrorist group.

From the beginning, the law has been dogged by concerns that it represented a government power grab that could violate people's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. The opposition came from an unlikely alliance of libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats who on Monday said they would join forces to limit the law's power.

Some Patriot Act opponents have suggested that in this post-bin Laden world it's time for Congress to reconsider the Patriot Act, written when the terrorist leader was at the peak of his power after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.

"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, spread from Pakistan to the United States and beyond, may try to retaliate for bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs.

"We are not out of harm's way, and no one should believe that," Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said.

Even before Monday's 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 without a judge's approval -- 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 may challenge a government order to keep it secret.

The Democrats who voted to block the Patriot Act extension are Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester as well as Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

The Republicans who voted with them are Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Paul. Also voting no was Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

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