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Congress to vote on extending Patriot Act

A measure to extend surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act is expected to pass despite concerns of many Democrats and some 'tea party' Republicans about privacy issues.

May 21, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • President George W. Bush, bottom left, standing, second from left, gets a tour of the National Counterterrorism Center in 2005.
President George W. Bush, bottom left, standing, second from left, gets… (Jason Reed / Reuters )

Reporting from Washington   — Congress is expected to vote next week to extend expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, which would allow the controversial anti-terrorism law to continue four more years despite opposition from an unusual coalition of Democrats and Republicans.

An earlier attempt to continue parts of the surveillance law suffered a surprise setback this year as "tea party" freshmen and veteran conservatives joined with Democrats to defeat the bill before passing a temporary extension.

The law, enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has been criticized by civil libertarians as well as conservatives as an undue overreach of governmental authority into private affairs.

At issue are three segments of the law that have come under scrutiny over concerns about invasion of privacy, including a provision that allows authorities to investigate any records pertaining to terrorism suspects.

Two other provisions up for renewal are the so-called roving wiretap, which allows authorities to continue surveillance on suspects as they switch phones or locations, and the "lone wolf" provision, which allows surveillance of foreigners without known ties to terrorist groups. All procedures must be approved by court orders.

Republicans in the House and Senate have pressed for a permanent extension of the expiring provisions, which Democrats largely oppose. The Obama administration had sought a two-year extension.

Congressional leaders reached an agreement late Thursday to vote on legislation that would continue the expiring provisions through 2015. The Senate is expected to take a test vote Monday, with House votes likely later in the week before the scheduled expiration on Friday.

"We're very disappointed," said Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, which had sought to amend the law. Congress and the administration, she said, "are no longer pursuing meaningful reforms that would protect privacy."

When the provisions came up for renewal in February, freshman members of the House said they had not been adequately prepared for the vote and several opposed the bill. Tea party groups also raised concerns and pressed for an open debate.

Since then, Republican leaders have organized classified briefings for lawmakers with officials from the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation to provide more information about the workings of the anti-terrorism surveillance program.

"We believe there will be strong support in the House in favor of this," said Erica Elliott, a spokeswoman for Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the Republican whip.

But some GOP lawmakers said Friday they still had concerns about the law.

"Americans have an expectation of privacy," said a statement from Rep. Rob Woodall, a freshman Republican from Georgia, who had voted against the temporary extension.

"The provisions up for renewal in the Patriot Act may have legitimate uses in combating terrorism; however, we have a higher duty to uphold the constitutional protections all Americans are guaranteed," Woodall said. "I will certainly keep this duty in mind as I consider the upcoming extension, and I hope that my colleagues will as well."

But the earlier votes also drew opposition from Democrats. They opposed the legislation in greater numbers this year than they had at the start of President Obama's term.

While some Democrats went along with the temporary extension earlier this year, asking for a four-year continuance may provoke additional Democratic opposition, said those familiar with the debate.

lmascaro@tribune.com

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