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Bush ratchets up Patriot Act pressure

President Bush and his allies step up pressure on senators to renew a law with limited reforms that would protect civil liberties.

President Bush and his allies on Wednesday lashed out at senators, both Republicans and Democrats, who want to include civil liberties reforms in any long-term renewal of the Patriot Act.

In remarks to reporters outside the White House, Bush said that "this obstruction is inexcusable" and warned that "the expiration of this vital law will endanger America."

Sixteen portions of the massive law, including ones dealing with Internet and electronic surveillance, are scheduled to expire on Dec. 31 unless Congress acts. The Senate in July overwhelmingly approved a renewal with reforms, but Republicans in the House of Representatives have refused to approve it.

A majority of senators have countered with an alternate proposal: a bill to extend the Patriot Act temporarily so negotiations could continue through March 31, 2006. Because Congress will adjourn soon for the Christmas holiday, time for a vote this year is running out.

In an attempt to ratchet up pressure on the Senate for a longer, four-year extension, administration functionaries echoed Bush's remarks in a series of public appearances Wednesday.

Bush spokesman Scott McClellan accused Senate Democrats of "putting politics before our national security" and playing "pure obstructionist politics." McClellan indicated that Bush would not sign a temporary renewal.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff also held a press briefing to urge a speedy vote. "We're going to wake up on Jan. 1, and we will have left some of the most important weapons against terror in the cupboard, unavailable to be used by our front line defenders," Chertoff said.

The Justice Department released a "fact sheet" saying that if those 16 portions of the Patriot Act expire, American companies will not be able to ask law enforcement to assist in disrupting and investigating a "cyberattack," and an Internet service provider that voluntarily discloses an e-mail threatening an imminent terrorist attack can be sued for doing so.

The nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology, on the other hand, countered with its own report (click here for PDF) saying that "few serious consequences will occur if the 16 provisions do sunset." Ongoing investigations can continue and many of the wiretapping sections are replicated elsewhere in federal law, the report says.

A letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist--signed by all Senate Democrats and eight Republican senators and made public on Wednesday--said they would back a three-month extension. "Federal law enforcement officials should continue to have use of the investigative tools of the Patriot Act," the letter said.

Casting a shadow over this process are continuing revelations about how Bush authorized a domestic surveillance program by the National Security Agency--revelations that helped to sustain a filibuster last week that prevented a vote on the Republican version of the Patriot Act renewal.

Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Republican who heads the House Intelligence Committee, defended the program as a way to thwart terrorists. "It provided us with unique insights into al-Qaida and its links inside the United States," Hoekstra said Wednesday.