Patriot Act renewal draws filibuster threat

Plan backed by White House for minimal changes and four-year renewal draws opposition in the Senate.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read
WASHINGTON--A plan backed by the Bush administration to renew the Patriot Act with minimal changes has run into stiff opposition and filibuster threats in the U.S. Senate.

Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who led the Senate's negotiations when the original law was drafted in 2001, said Thursday that he would not support a four-year renewal unless it included substantial reforms. Sixteen portions of the massive law, including ones relating to electronic and Internet surveillance, expire on Dec. 31.

"This is too important to the American people to rush through a flawed bill to meet some deadline that we have the ability to extend," Leahy said. He and other Democrats, including Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and John Rockefeller of West Virginia, said in a letter Thursday that they would back a brief, three-month extension instead.

The last-minute Republican proposal for a four-year extension, reported by CNET News.com on Wednesday, has drawn even more vocal opposition from a bipartisan group of six senators who have been pressing for privacy and civil liberties reforms.

In a joint statement on Thursday, they took aim at the so-called conference report (click for 600KB PDF) that Republican negotiators prepared behind closed doors. "By insisting that modest protections for civil liberties be excluded from the conference report, the conferees bear responsibility for any possibility that some provisions of the Patriot Act could expire this year," the group of six said.

Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act four years ago, said Thursday that "I will do everything I can, including a filibuster, to stop this Patriot Act conference report, which does not include adequate safeguards to protect our constitutional freedoms."

The group of six also includes Democrats Richard Durbin of Illinois and Kenneth Salazar of Colorado, and Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Larry Craig of Idaho and John Sununu of New Hampshire. They backed a Patriot Act reform plan, called the Safe Act, which is still stuck in committee.

The Bush administration responded by trying to ratchet up the pressure on senators to agree with the proposal for a lengthier renewal. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the Justice Department "strongly supports" the Republican-backed bill, adding, "I urge both houses of Congress to act promptly to pass this critical piece of legislation."

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who agreed to the conference report this week, said the Patriot Act renewal was not "perfect" but a "good bill" nevertheless.

"I don't see any reason to filibuster this bill...I think that when it's examined, then it will be accepted," Specter told reporters at a press conference in Washington. "We can have no bill at all, which is what would happen on Dec. 31 when it expires, or we can have a renewal of the existing bill, which has a problems, or we can take this bill that has a lot of improvements."

Minor changes
The final conference report does include minor changes to the vast and labyrinthine 2001 law, including an attempt to impose more regulations on police trying to obtain business, library, medical and other personal records through the so-called "library" provision, Section 215.

According to the text of the final conference report, authorities must now provide a court with a "statement of facts" showing "reasonable grounds to believe" that the records sought are relevant to an investigation of international terrorism or espionage.

But the senators in opposition argue that the relevance standard is far too broad and "would not prevent fishing expeditions," according to a document provided by Sununu's office.

Organizations that receive court orders requesting records would also be able to consult with a lawyer under the new bill. Under existing law, they are barred by a gag order from discussing the court order with anyone including an attorney--a policy intended to protect the secrecy of an investigation.