Saturday, December 17, 2005

Senate Democrats yesterday began filibustering a proposal to extend the USA Patriot Act, raising the probability that key provisions of the anti-terrorism law will expire in two weeks.

Joined by four Republicans, Democrats said the renewal measure lacked protections for Americans’ civil liberties from increased law-enforcement powers.

“Today’s vote is a great moment for our Constitution and our democracy and a great moment in the fight against terrorism,” said Wisconsin’s Sen. Russell D. Feingold, who has led the fight for Democrats. “If you don’t have the confidence of the American people when it comes to this fight against terrorism, if they fear that somehow we’re going too far and going after the rights of law-abiding citizens — it will weaken our ability to win in that all-important battle.”

Republicans warned that allowing the current provisions to expire could have devastating consequences and said Democrats would be punished in next year’s elections for letting it lapse.

“The Patriot Act expires on December 31, but the terrorists’ threat does not,” Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said shortly before the Senate fell seven “ayes” shy of the 60 votes needed to end debate on the bill. “We have a clear choice before us today: Do we advance against terrorism to make America safer or do we retreat to the days before 9/11 when terrorists slipped through the cracks?”

A filibuster is a parliamentary tactic used occasionally to force more compromise and consensus on legislation. But since the House has already approved the measure, the Patriot Act extension can no longer be altered.

By yesterday morning, President Bush and House Republicans had joined Mr. Frist’s outright rejection of any proposal to extend the current Patriot Act on a short-term basis. That, combined with yesterday’s Senate vote, dimmed prospects for a compromise before the end of the year.

But Mr. Frist said he was confident, at least publicly, that the act would be extended.

“Realistically, I wouldn’t handle it this way if I didn’t think I had a very good shot at having this bill pass before it expires,” Mr. Frist said moments after the vote.

The majority leader said he hoped to change minds by doing more in the next few days to “educate” colleagues about the civil liberty safeguards included in the proposed legislation.

Democrats, however, weren’t playing the role of eager students.

“We killed the Patriot Act,” boasted Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, to cheers from a crowd at a political rally after the vote.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, invoked abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in defending his vote against the Patriot Act. “Earlier today, the Senate voted to stop a bill that would have allowed the abuses of American civil liberties to continue for another four years,” he said in a floor statement.

Republicans privately marveled that Democrats would open themselves up to being blamed for the Patriot Act’s demise.

“For our colleagues to allow it to expire is to play with fire,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican. “It is to take the chance that terrorists will not act in that interim, in that period where the act falls and we’re relegated to using the authorities that we had before September 11th.”

Said a Republican leadership aide: “If the Democrats think this is a political win for them, I’m feeling much better about 2006. The minute they start debating us on the Patriot Act, we win. This is our issue.”

Mr. Bush issued a statement crediting the Patriot Act with protecting “American liberty” and saving “American lives” since its passage after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“These senators need to understand that the Patriot Act expires in 15 days, but the terrorist threat to America will not expire on that schedule,” Mr. Bush said. “The terrorists want to attack America again and kill the innocent and inflict even greater damage than they did on September 11th — and the Congress has a responsibility not to take away this vital tool … to protect the American people.”

Before yesterday’s vote, opponents of the legislation rallied around a front page article in Thursday’s New York Times that reported Mr. Bush had secretly lifted certain limits on spying inside the United States. After more than a year holding the story, the paper decided to run it on the day of the Patriot Act vote.

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