President Bush’s call for expanded antiterrorism powers, dubbed “Patriot II” by some, got a lukewarm response on Capitol Hill yesterday from both sides of the aisle.
Democrats say the administration is trying to pass the contentious “Patriot II” piecemeal, and Republican lawmakers vocally opposed to expanding the original legislation mostly are mum on the matter.
Many in Congress are wary of writing any more “blank checks for this administration, without more accountability,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Since passage of the Patriot Act two years ago, it has become increasingly apparent that the trust and cooperation Congress offered the White House has been a one-way street,” Mr. Leahy said. “No administration in memory has been more secretive, more resistant to congressional oversight and more disposed to acting unilaterally.”
The original USA Patriot Act enacted after the September 11 terrorist attacks greatly expanded government powers for using wiretaps and electronic eavesdropping.
The new set of three laws proposed by President Bush on Wednesday would expand the federal death penalty to convicted terrorists, block bail for terrorism suspects, and allow administrative subpoenas without judicial approval.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and presidential aspirant, said law- enforcement officials should get every tool needed to fight terrorism, but added that he is concerned that the administration is abusing powers.
“Is the government snooping through people’s library records? Inappropriately searching people’s belongings? George W. Bush isn’t answering these questions. As usual, he’s keeping secrets and fueling suspicions,” Mr. Lieberman said.
Jeff Lungren, spokesman for Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said yesterday that the panel has not seen the new legislation and offered little comment.
“The committee will give these proposals careful consideration as it does for any legislation the administration is advocating,” Mr. Lungren said.
Mr. Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin Republican, has conducted extensive oversight of implementation of the Patriot Act. He has declared that he will not let the act’s sunset provision be killed, saying congressional reconsideration of the act in 2005 is essential to ensure that the law is not being abused.
Mr. Bush’s initiatives originally were contained in a January draft of legislation from the Justice Department, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, called the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003. The proposal was leaked to the public a month later, and met with widespread criticism from the right and the left.
Contentious provisions in “Patriot II” include the creation of a DNA database of terrorism suspects and their close associates. It also would allow the government to strip American citizenship from the suspects and gives law enforcement the power to wiretap Americans for 15 days without a court order after a terrorist attack.
Democrats said the strategy was “to sneak” the elements of the bill through Congress, without presenting it as the next installment of the Patriot Act.
“After all the criticism of that sequel and the secretive way it was drafted, the administration now has decided to push a sequel, without calling it a sequel,” Mr. Leahy said.
“And after spending huge amounts of taxpayers’ money touring the country, Attorney General Ashcroft still hasn’t explained why we should trust him with more secret powers. We need less self-promotion and lobbying, and more consultation and cooperation.”
Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Mr. Ashcroft is “on the ropes” and “running on defense” of the expanded legislation.
“They are circling the wagons because they realize Mr. Ashcroft is vulnerable. That’s why the president is the proponent for these new powers, and not the attorney general,” Mr. Romero said.
More than 165 communities representing 16 million people in 26 states have passed resolutions condemning the Patriot Act.
Citing a recent CNN/USA Today Gallup poll showing that Americans support the act, a Justice Department spokesman accused critics of fear mongering.
“The American people overwhelmingly support the Patriot Act. The attorney general has merely been pointing out the facts of the law to clarify the misinformation and fear that Mr. Romero and the ACLU have been spreading about the law,” said spokesman Mark Corallo.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the ACLU can’t be straight with the American public,” he said.
The poll conducted Aug. 25 and 26 shows that 21 percent of Americans believe the administration has gone “too far” in restricting civil liberties, 19 percent said not far enough, and 55 percent said the administration has done “about right.”
Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, supports Mr. Bush’s death penalty initiative and introduced a bill on Wednesday to coincide with the announcement.
“The House and Senate have a responsibility to act quickly on these matters — untie the hands of our law-enforcement officials so they can fight and win the war against terror,” Mr. Specter said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican and Patriot Act critic, is pushing legislation on the Senate side to define powers of the act that she says have “moved the scales out of balance.” She was traveling to Alaska yesterday and was unavailable for comment.
Jerry Seper contributed to this report.