- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The USA Patriot Act renewal cleared a final hurdle in the Senate yesterday on its way to President Bush’s desk.

But the bill’s sponsor said he is unsatisfied with the measure’s privacy protections and is far from being done tinkering with the centerpiece of the war on terrorism.

“The issue is not concluded,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and Judiciary Committee chairman. He said he plans more legislation and hearings on restoring House-rejected curbs on government power.

The Senate voted 69-30 to limit debate and bring the bill to a final vote that could occur as early as today. The House then would vote and send the legislation to the White House. Sixteen major provisions would expire March 10 if Mr. Bush doesn’t sign the bill by then.

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, did not vote.

First passed in the weeks after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the law has been extended twice for lack of congressional accord over the balance between civil liberties protections and law-enforcement tools in terrorism investigations.

Several Democrats voted “no” on the test vote yesterday to protest the Republican majority’s refusal to allow amendments, but said they would vote for the bill on final passage. These Democrats included Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee’s senior Democrat.

Others still plan to vote against the bill as a whole, but they stand little chance of blocking it. Led by Democrat Sens. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin and Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, its foes contend that the months of haggling produced few meaningful curbs on government power.

Mr. Specter agreed on that point. Even as he urged his colleagues to vote this week for the bill, he introduced a separate bill to make the government satisfy a higher threshold for warrantless wiretaps and to set a four-year expiration date for the use of National Security Letters in terrorism investigations.

However appetizing to Mr. Specter’s colleagues in the Senate, the new bill represents items House Republicans flatly rejected during talks last year.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and House Judiciary Committee chairman, has insisted that once the House approves the renewal, his chamber is done for the year on the issue.

The standoff pushed renewing the law into this midterm election year. Senate leaders were forced to find a procedural way of getting the bill to a vote without losing the support of Mr. Sensenbrenner, the Bush administration and libertarian-leaning lawmakers — all before March 10.

The solution is a convoluted procedural dance that illustrates the razor-thin zone of agreement.

Congress will extend the Patriot Act by passing two pieces of legislation. The first is the same accord passed last year by the House and filibustered in the Senate by members who said it contained too few privacy protections. The second is, in effect, an amendment to the first that adds enough privacy protections to win over those same libertarian-leaning Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is permitting no other amendments, which allows the measure to slide through both houses without extended debate.

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