Friday, February 17, 2006

The Senate yesterday steamrolled opposition to the renewal of the USA Patriot Act, legislation originally passed in 2001 to combat terrorism.

The 96-3 vote broke a filibuster of procedural floor action after last week’s compromise that won over several key opponents of the bill.

Voting to maintain the filibuster were Democratic Sens. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin and Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Sen. James M. Jeffords, Vermont independent. Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, did not vote.

“I will continue to oppose this flawed deal, insist that the Senate jump through every procedural hoop and demand the right to offer amendments to improve it,” Mr. Feingold said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist hailed the wide margin of victory and said the Senate will approve the measure March 1, nine days before the current law is now scheduled to expire.

“Breaking the filibuster against the Patriot Act means that the critical law enforcement tools it provides won’t lapse,” Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said. “Our intelligence and law-enforcement officials should never again be left wondering whether the Congress will reauthorize the tools that protect our nation — that is unacceptable.”

Last week, Republican Sens. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, Larry E. Craig of Idaho, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, all dropped their opposition to the bill after modifications were made that they said appeased their concerns about protecting civil liberties.

But Mr. Feingold noted that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, had called the changes “cosmetic.”

“No amount of cosmetics can disguise the fact that it fails to protect the rights and freedoms of law-abiding Americans,” Mr. Feingold said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the agreement was a genuine effort to improve civil-liberty safeguards.

“There was a good agreement that was reached by members of the Senate,” he said yesterday. “It was reached in a good-faith effort. Yet there are still some Senate Democrats that want to continue to engage in obstructionist tactics and prevent this vital legislation from being reauthorized. We hope the Senate will move ahead quickly and reject the continued obstructionist efforts, and get this act renewed before it is set to expire next month.”

Republicans were quick to make political hay out of the vote.

“Senator Byrd has again demonstrated he is out of touch with West Virginia,” said Dan Ronayne, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has targeted Mr. Byrd as among the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election this year.

“Taking his cue from the ultraliberal group MoveOn, Byrd was one of only three senators to oppose the Patriot Act today. Siding with the far left on such an important issue will be a difficult vote for Senator Byrd to defend in West Virginia,” Mr. Ronayne said.

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