GOP Chairmen Spar Over Patriot Act

The Republican chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees may end up in a showdown on how best to reauthorize the USA Patriot Act.

The House chairman, Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, is pushing to make the entire law permanent, while the Senate chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, prefers to retain some congressional control by extending only some of the law’s expiration dates.

President Bush called on Congress again Monday to make permanent the expiring provisions of the nation’s premier anti-terrorism law, days after London was struck by terrorist bombs.

“The terrorist threats against us will not expire at the end of this year, and neither should the protections of the Patriot Act,” Bush said in a speech at the at the FBI training academy in Quantico, Va.

The Patriot Act, the result of Congress’ swift response to the Sept. 11 attacks, allowed expanded surveillance of terror suspects, increased use of material witness warrants to hold suspects incommunicado and permitted secret proceedings in immigration cases.

More than a dozen provisions are set to expire at the end of this year, some of which have aroused civil liberties concerns among liberals and conservatives.

Sensenbrenner plans to go along with Bush’s call on the House side, with his committee on Wednesday working on legislation that would strike all the “sunset” provisions _ the predetermined dates when a law or provision expires _ from the Patriot Act.

Specter, meanwhile, plans to keep several of the sunsets in the Senate bill when its reauthorization is debated in the Senate Judiciary Committee, setting up a conflict between the two versions that would have to reconciled before the provision’s expiration on Dec. 31 if they are unchanged in the House and Senate.

Sensenbrenner and Specter both plan to call for additional reporting requirements and modifications for the Patriot Act in their reauthorization bills, especially on the so-called “library provision.”

That provision, by far the most controversial in the Patriot Act, permits secret warrants for “books, records, papers, documents and other items” from businesses, hospitals and other organizations.

While it does not specifically mention bookstores or libraries, critics say the government could use it to subpoena library and bookstore records and snoop into the reading habits of innocent Americans.

The House voted 238-187 last month to restrict investigators from using that part of the anti-terrorism law. The Senate has yet to take up that provision, which is contained in a $57.5 billion bill covering the departments of Commerce, Justice and State. GOP leaders often drop provisions offensive to Bush during final negotiations to resolve differences between House and Senate versions of a bill.

Sensenbrenner wants to place into law requirements that the Justice Department must specify that the information they are looking for is foreign intelligence information not concerning a U.S. person or relevant to an international terrorism or spy case.

Federal officials also would have to allow the warrants to be challenged, make sure that the subject of the warrant can confer with a lawyer to comply with the warrant, and set up a system that allows a judge to affirm or throw out one of the warrants.

The Justice Department has already agreed to support changes to that provision, something that the American Civil Liberties Union noted in its criticism of Sensenbrenner’s legislation.

“The House Judiciary Committee’s proposal is a flawed bill that makes the expiring provisions permanent and includes minimal changes that the Justice Department has already conceded,” said Lisa Graves, an ACLU lawyer.


The House bill number is H.R. 3199.

For bill text:

© 2005 The Associated Press