Opponents of the USA Patriot Act are taking advantage of a split between the House and Senate to rewrite the law under a ticking clock that voids some contentious provisions by Dec. 31.
A proposed deal between the House and Senate fell apart just hours before lawmakers left for the Thanksgiving break. When the session resumes Dec. 12, lawmakers will have 15 working days to reach a compromise.
The looming deadline comes as Congress increasingly is focused on the war in Iraq, hurricane-relief funding, spending and tax cuts.
“The clock is ticking, that’s for sure,” said Lisa Graves, the American Civil Liberties Union’s senior counsel for legislative strategy.
Bob Barr, a former Georgia representative and one of many Republicans who have joined forces with Democrats and privacy advocates to rewrite the post-September 11 law, said the fallout gives them more time to lobby for change.
The deal collapsed when three Republican and three Democratic senators balked at White House pressure to support the measure.
“It is my understanding they basically indicated they did not care if Democrats came on board or not, but to press for a partisan vote and use any ‘no’ votes to campaign against in next year’s election,” Mr. Barr said. “It certainly did not go over very well. It’s a very unusual atmosphere up there right now.”
Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows law-enforcement officials to obtain sensitive and personal information on a mere showing of relevance.
The renewal provisions do not restrict the issuance of national security letters to collect information, tens of thousands of which reportedly have been issued.
Information subpoenaed from third parties are not subject to judicial review and business owners or librarians face one year in prison if the existence of the letter is disclosed.
The Senate argued for a four-year sunset, the House wanted 10 years, and the compromise deadline for renewal is four years.
“The main thing we need to do is focus on the substantive issues and the House measure does nothing of substance,” Mr. Barr said. “The main issue is not the sunset, but to provide some standards whereby the government has a minimal burden to meet before invading a person’s privacy and gathering evidence.”
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and House Judiciary Committee chairman, argues that the agreement is more protective of civil liberties and requires reporting requirements on how many people are the subject of national security letters (NSLs).
“Most notably, this agreement permanently tears down ‘the wall’ that prior to September 11 prohibited the sharing of information between the law-enforcement and intelligence communities and hindered their ability to connect the dots,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said.
Miss Graves said the breakdown between parties “signaled a lot of disconnect that is pretty broad in terms of Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and moderates.”
“All of our allies are reaching out to members on the Hill to encourage them to get an improved bill,” she said.