by Thomas Ferraro of http://www.capitolhillblue.com
The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation on Wednesday to renew the USA Patriot Act, setting up a showdown with the Senate over a centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism.
On a 251-174 vote, the House approved the measure, with supporters saying it would properly balance civil liberties with the need to bolster national security.
But a number of Democrats and Republicans vowed to oppose the legislation in the Senate. They charged that despite increased congressional and judicial oversight, it would still give the government too much power to pry into the lives of Americans, including their medical, gun and library records.
Opponents have threatened a Senate procedural roadblock known as a filibuster. It was unclear if they could prevent backers from mustering the needed 60 votes in the 100-member, Republican-led chamber to cut off such a tactic.
A vote was set for Friday.
A Senate Democratic leadership aide said opponents seemed to have from 40 to 46 votes to sustain a filibuster. Republicans said it was uncertain how many votes they would have.
“It’s going to be close,” a Senate Republican aide said.
Bush weighed into the fray, saying, “The Patriot Act is scheduled to expire at the end of the month, but the terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule.”
“In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment. I urge the Senate to pass this legislation promptly and reauthorize the Patriot Act,” Bush said in a statement.
If Senate proponents are unable to pass the measure, one option suggested by opponents would be to approve a temporary extension of the act as currently written until a new agreement could be reached between the House and Senate.
But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said, “I am opposed to a short-term extension,” and called on senators to pass the House-passed measure.
“Today’s overwhelming bipartisan vote in the House for the Patriot Act — with the support of 44 Democrats, including members of the House Democratic leadership — shows that we can all unite to make America safer from terrorism while safeguarding our civil rights and civil liberties,” Frist said.
The Patriot Act was first passed after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States to expand the power of the federal government to track down terrorists.
The House-passed compromise would make permanent 14 provisions set to expire on December 31, including ones allowing the sharing of information by intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
In a concession to critics, the legislation would extend three others by four years rather than seven years as proposed earlier.
Those provisions cover rules for tracking “lone-wolf” terrorists, who operate independent of outside groups, as well as wiretaps and court orders for records from businesses, libraries and others in intelligence cases.
The legislation would amend the ability of law enforcement agents to obtain library records, requiring a court to be satisfied the records were relevant to a terrorism investigation.
In a “Dear Colleague” letter, nine senators — five Democrats and four Republicans — called for additional changes.
They charged the measure would allow “fishing expeditions targeting innocent Americans,” and said the government should be “required to convince a judge” that records they want are connected to a “suspected terrorist or spy.”
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Reuters during a visit to New York the Patriot Act “has proven to be a very effective tool in fighting terror.”
“I don’t think there has been any real case made that it’s been abused,” he said.
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