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Patriot Act critics propose temporary extension

As expiration date looms, Democrats and three Republicans oppose an expansion and support a brief renewal.

Senate Democrats proposed on Monday a three-month extension of the Patriot Act as an alternative to the Bush administration's support for a broader expansion of the law's surveillance authorities.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said "we should make every effort to make this a better bill that will strengthen, instead of jeopardize, the public's faith and trust." Another Democrat, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, has threatened a filibuster.

Leahy is a co-author of the bill, along with Republican John Sununu of New Hampshire.

Sixteen portions of the massive law, including ones relating to electronic and Internet surveillance, expire Dec. 31. The majority will stay in effect unless repealed.

The looming deadline, and votes expected in the Senate and House of Representatives this week, has prompted a frenzied round of political jockeying. With the aid of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Republicans claim an expansion of the law--in the form of a 219-page "conference report" (click for PDF)--is necessary to fight terrorists.

But Democrats and a handful of Republicans, wary of the proposed additions to the Patriot Act and what they view as an unseemly haste to rush them into law, introduced a bill Monday calling for a temporary, three-month renewal.

The conference report does increase the amount of summary statistics that federal courts and prosecutors must provide to Congress each year, an oversight feature that Republicans have been stressing. It also includes unrelated sections such as support for mandatory drug testing, cigarette taxes and methamphetamine restrictions.

The report "retains the tools essential to law enforcement in fighting international terrorism while significantly expanding protections for civil rights from the act currently in force," Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said in a statement released this weekend.

Supporting a three-month extension is a fluid coalition of senators including Leahy and fellow Democrats Richard Durbin of Illinois, Carl Levin of Michigan, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, John Rockefeller of West Virginia, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Kenneth Salazar of Colorado. The trio of Republicans are Sununu, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Larry Craig of Idaho.