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Sen. Specter Puts Brakes on Patriot Act Extension

The judiciary panel chairman joins critics of the law, delaying a vote. He calls for four-year expiration dates on some provisions.

November 19, 2005|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) joined Friday with a bipartisan group of critics to reject a proposed agreement to extend the Patriot Act, dealing the White House an embarrassing setback and dashing its hopes that Congress would vote on the sweeping antiterrorism law before adjourning for Thanksgiving.

Speaking at a news conference called by senators who have threatened to filibuster the House-backed legislation unless it provides greater privacy protections, Specter said he disagreed with House negotiators over the expiration dates for two of the law's 16 provisions.

"My view is that the Patriot Act needs further analysis and some revision from what is in the proposed conference report at the present time," Specter said. The statute expires Dec. 31, and pressure is building on Congress to act.

Specter said that he wanted four-year expiration dates for a provision that gives the FBI broad leeway to seize personal and business information -- the so-called library provision -- and a second provision that allows the FBI to wiretap any phone a suspect uses. The current version has seven-year expiration dates.

The failure to win a vote Friday came as the White House fought mounting perceptions on Capitol Hill that President Bush, whose public approval ratings have plummeted in recent weeks, is becoming a lame duck. It also added to the perception of a congressional Republican leadership struggling to hold its increasingly fractious majority together on important votes.

The Patriot Act, enacted just weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is the centerpiece of the administration's domestic war on terrorism. Passed by both the Senate and House by overwhelming margins, the law greatly expanded the powers of the FBI and the Justice Department to combat terrorism, in part by tearing down the legal wall between law enforcement authorities and intelligence investigators.

It met with resistance across the political spectrum, however, from those who feared government abuse of its broad powers to track and investigate terrorism suspects. Lawmakers from both parties have fought for greater congressional oversight and for expiration dates on some of the more controversial provisions.

The administration has urged that all of the law's provisions be made permanent, saying it was a vital tool in the war on terrorism. In a last-ditch effort to get a vote this week extending the law, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. attempted to broker a deal between House and Senate negotiators Thursday night, but failed to bridge the gap between the two chambers.

Dana Perino, a White House press secretary, downplayed the significance of the setback.

"We have been pleased with the progress that the conference has made," Perino said. "We are confident that the measure will pass. It is critical that it passes by the end of the year, and we know that Congress understands that."

But one Republican, Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, blamed the White House for what he said was "this unnecessary fiasco."

"The White House could have been much more helpful throughout the process if they had really engaged members of the Senate," Sununu said in an interview. Senior White House and Justice Department officials, he complained, had failed "to reach out earlier to members of the Senate to understand the substance of these concerns" that he and others began to raise two years ago.

Sununu faulted the administration for resisting changes in a law that was passed in haste when the nation was still in shock from the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"It is the height of arrogance," he said, "to suggest you could pass historic legislation in the weeks after a tragedy and know, for sure, that it is perfect."

Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a group that supports renewing the Patriot Act but with greater protections for privacy rights and civil liberties, said the administration and House leadership "misread the sentiment in the Congress."

"I think that there is widespread concern about some of the unrestricted powers in the Patriot Act, and it's bipartisan," he said. "At the moment, it is an embarrassment for the administration and the [congressional] leadership. But they could make a few cosmetic changes" and win passage next month.

House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said, "We still have work to do with the Senate conferees." He noted that the proposed compromise would make permanent 14 of the law's 16 provisions. The legislation would limit the time agents can conduct some types of searches without notifying the targets, let companies challenge demands that they turn over their records to aid an investigation, and take other steps to protect privacy rights.

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