Democrats and Republicans sell out to pass Patriot Act

Republicans marched in lockstep while all but nine Democrats and one independent caved and voted to reauthorrize the rights-robbing USA Patriot Act Thursday, giving President George W. Bush the power he craves to ride roughshod over the Constitution.

Those who sided with Bush included Democratic leader Harry Reid and every Republican member of the Senate, ending months of wrangling over renewal of the law that civil libertrarians call a major threat to freedom in this country. 


The Senate’s passage hands Bush a victory in his troubled second term and allows the Republicans to polish their tough-on-terror image for the midterm elections.

The 89-10 vote on Thursday was months overdue and came only after a Democrat-led filibuster that attracted GOP support forced Bush to accept modest curbs on the government’s power to investigate suspects in terror probes.

Still, Bush savored the moment at a time when his approval ratings have suffered over the war in Iraq and his administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. The House was expected to approve the two-bill package next week and send it to the president, who would sign it before 16 provisions expire March 10.

Bush applauded the Senate for overcoming "partisan attempts to block its passage."

"This bill will allow our law enforcement officials to continue to use the same tools against terrorists that are already used against drug dealers and other criminals, while safeguarding the civil liberties of the American people," Bush said in a statement from India.

"I am very pleased and relieved," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a possible presidential candidate, who had been unable to break the deadlock for more than two months. "It’s been very tough to get to this point."

Critics of the act held their ground. Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., insisted that the new civil liberties protections were cosmetic.

"Americans want to defeat terrorism and they want the basic character of this country to survive and prosper," Feingold said. "They want both security and liberty, and unless we give them both — and we can if we try — we have failed."

Some lawmakers who voted for the package acknowledged deep reservations about the power it would grant to any president.

"Our support for the Patriot Act does not mean a blank check for the president," said Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who voted to pass the bill package. "What we tried to do on a bipartisan basis is have a better bill. It has been improved."

Not enough even for the bill’s chief sponsor in the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa. After prolonged negotiations produced a House-Senate compromise, Specter urged his colleagues to pass it even as he promised to introduce a new measure and hold hearings on how to fix it.

When The New York Times revealed in December that Bush had authorized a secret domestic wiretapping program, Democrats gained ammunition for their charge that the administration had run amok in its zeal to root out terrorists.

With the help of some Republicans, they blocked a vote on whether to renew the law before 16 provisions expired on Dec. 31.

GOP leaders were unable to break the gridlock, so Congress opted instead to extend the deadline twice while negotiations continued. In the end, the White House and the Republicans broke the stalemate by crafting a second measure that would curb some powers of law enforcement officials seeking information.

This second bill _ in effect an amendment to the measure renewing the 16 provisions _ would add new protections to the 2001 antiterror law.

They include giving recipients of court-approved subpoenas in terrorist investigations the right to challenge a gag order. The change also would eliminate a requirement that an individual provide the FBI with the name of a lawyer consulted about a National Security Letter, which is a demand for records issued by investigators.

Passed in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the original Patriot Act expanded the government’s surveillance and prosecutorial powers against suspected terrorists, their associates and financiers.

The renewal package would make 14 of 16 temporary provisions permanent and set four-year expirations on the others.

The renewal includes several measures not directly related to terrorism. One would make it harder for illicit labs to obtain ingredients for methamphetamine by requiring pharmacies to sell nonprescription cold medicines only from behind the counter.

Another focuses on port security, imposing new criminal sanctions and a death sentence in certain circumstances for placing a device or substance in U.S. waters that could damage vessels or cargo.

Feingold’s chief ally, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said the package was not enough to check what he described as a presidential tendency through history of "always grabbing more power."

"The erosion of freedom rarely comes as an all-out frontal assault," warned Byrd, the dean of the Senate. "Rather, it is a gradual, noxious creeping cloaked in secrecy and glossed over by reassurances of greater security."

The "no" votes came from Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., and Feingold, Byrd and seven other Senate Democrats: Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Carl Levin of Michigan, Patty Murray of Washington and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, did not vote.

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The bill is HR3199.

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