Thursday, December 15, 2005

Senate Democrats say they will filibuster the extension of the USA Patriot Act, which passed the House yesterday on a bipartisan vote, despite some concerns that provisions of the bill trample civil liberties by giving law enforcement too much power.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he will not demand that his entire caucus support a filibuster but said that he certainly would.

“Because of 9/11, we rushed to judgment on a number of provisions in that bill,” he said. “We certainly shouldn’t do that this time.”

But Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, said after the 251-174 House vote that the legislation “provides essential tools to protecting the American people and winning the war on terror by detecting, disrupting and dismantling terrorist activity before it occurs.”

The real fight will be later this week in the Senate, when Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, plans to try to force an end to debate on the bill so it can be voted on before Congress adjourns for the year. The Patriot Act, which was modified in the bill now under consideration, expires at the end of the year.

Other key Democrats such as Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking minority member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also have said they will support a filibuster. Four Republicans — Sens. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, Larry E. Craig of Idaho, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska — said yesterday that they will join Democrats in opposing the legislation, even helping block a final vote on its passage.

Mr. Leahy and Mr. Sununu drafted an alternate bill earlier this week that would extend the Patriot Act for three months until the civil-liberty concerns can be fixed.

By last night, the standoff had come down to a game of political chicken, with Republicans recalling Democrats’ opposition to a Homeland Security bill that later was used against them with devastating consequences in the 2002 elections.

“Last week, Democrat leadership offered a cut-and-run strategy in Iraq,” Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said. “Now they’re siding with the ACLU instead of the Fraternal Order of Police in the war on terror.”

If a filibuster succeeds and the two sides fail to reach a compromise that the House signs off on, the Patriot Act will expire. The campaign ads against Democrats would write themselves, Republicans said yesterday. But Democrats said they are confident that such a political strategy won’t work this time.

“Republicans are spinning themselves so hard, they’re forgetting that there’s bipartisan opposition to this bill,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.

The situation has made strange bedfellows of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. It’s also forced some senators into political contortions.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held a press conference yesterday to tout part of the bill she’s worked on for years aimed at cracking down on the manufacture and sale of methamphetamine.

But Mrs. Feinstein said she still might filibuster the bill.

“I have not announced whether I’m going to vote for cloture or not,” she said.

More than just politics is at stake. The Department of Homeland Security said yesterday that the Patriot Act is “a proven tool in the global war on terror.”

“The Patriot Act breaks down barriers to information sharing, enabling law-enforcement and intelligence personnel to share information that is needed to help connect the dots and disrupt potential terror and criminal activity before they can carry out their plots,” the department said.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the law had resulted in the arrest of more than 155 persons, 142 indictments, the seizure of more than $25 million in illicit profits and the closure of several unlicensed money-transmittal businesses.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) yesterday said it was disappointed that the House failed to “protect the liberty and freedom of innocent Americans when that body adopted flawed legislation to reauthorize the Patriot Act.”

“With a vote likely later this week, we urge senators to stand firm in their commitment to our fundamental freedoms and reject this unsound bill,” said Caroline Fredrickson, who heads the ACLU’s Washington legislative office.

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