WASHINGTON — Illustrating a reservoir of concern even among Republicans, the House defied the Bush administration Wednesday by voting to roll back a controversial provision of the USA Patriot Act that, at least in theory, enabled terrorism investigators to check out the reading habits of patrons of libraries and bookstores.
The amendment, approved 238 to 137, would scale back a sweeping provision in the anti-terrorism law, Section 215, that allowed investigators to obtain a wide range of business records and other "tangible things."
Although the provision does not specifically mention books, it has come to be known as "the library provision" because of librarians' and civil liberties advocates' concern that investigators could use it to pry into the records of readers across the country, infringing on basic freedoms.
"Every member of Congress and every American understands we have to do everything we can to protect the American people from terrorism. That is not the debate," said Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), the amendment's lead proponent. "The debate is whether we can and must do that and protect the constitutional rights that make us a free people. That is what Congress voted for today.
"This sends a real message to the president that the American people do not want Big Brother looking over their shoulder when they walk into a library or bookstore."
Congress passed the Patriot Act weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, expanding law enforcement powers to help thwart suspected terrorists. But its authors mandated that some of the more controversial provisions expire after four years unless specifically renewed.
The renewal of the Patriot Act is one of the administration's priorities this year. President Bush has put his personal prestige behind the effort, last week campaigning in Ohio in favor of the law in an appearance with Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales.
Wednesday's vote in the House suggests that the effort to renew the law, though not necessarily in serious jeopardy, may face tougher sledding than once thought.
Because of the urgency accompanying the act's 2001 passage, some members of Congress contend the administration sought to force some measures into the law without a considered debate. They regard this as their first chance to fully vet the law, and they do not always like what they see.
The one-sentence amendment approved Wednesday would bar the FBI from using money to apply for a special court order invoking the Patriot Act to obtain circulation records, library patron lists, book sales records or book customer lists.
Thirty-eight Republicans joined 199 Democrats and one Independent in support of the amendment, which was incorporated into legislation to set the Justice Department's fiscal 2006 budget. The California delegation split along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans -- with the exception of Mary Bono of Palm Springs, who did not vote -- opposed.
Whether the amendment will become law is unclear. It has yet to be taken up in the Senate, and with the GOP leadership in Congress opposed to any changes that might water down the Patriot Act, the measure faces an uphill fight.
Still, the margin of victory represented a setback for the administration, and underscored concern even among conservatives that parts of the Patriot Act gave government too much power to reach into the private lives of individuals.
Bush has vowed to veto the amendment, which was also strongly opposed by the Justice Department.
The department has acknowledged that, as of March 30, Section 215 had not been used to obtain library records, but it says that carving out exemptions in the law would be unwise.
It has also noted that library and bookstore records obtained in criminal investigations often turned out to be important evidence. For example, it says, investigators subpoenaed a bookseller to prove that convicted Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph had purchased a book that gave instructions on building a detonator, used in several bombings.
"Section 215 of the Patriot Act provides national security investigators with an important tool for investigating and intercepting terrorism while at the same time establishing robust safeguards to protect law-abiding Americans," Justice Department spokesman Kevin Madden said in response to the vote.
The American Civil Liberties Union, a leading critic of the terrorism law, including Section 215, said the vote was a good sign.
"It bodes well that the first vote Congress has taken on the Patriot Act this year has been in favor of liberty and freedom," said Gregory Nojeim, acting director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office. "After weeks of hearings on the Patriot Act, fair-minded lawmakers -- from both sides of the aisle -- know that the Patriot Act must be brought in line with the Constitution by restoring proper checks and balances."