The House voted last night to make most provisions of the USA Patriot Act permanent but defied President Bush by keeping a 10-year time limit on the two most contentious powers in the legislation, which was enacted weeks after the September 11 attacks.
As some Democrats pushed for more restrictions, a majority of lawmakers said most of the bill should be made permanent because it struck a careful balance of giving investigators new tools while preserving rights.
“For too long, opponents of the Patriot Act have transformed it into a grossly distorted caricature that bears no relation to the legislation itself,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican.
“The security of the American people is the most solemn responsibility entrusted to Congress,” he said. Renewing the act “is vital to maintaining the post-9/11 law enforcement and intelligence reforms that have reduced America’s vulnerability to terrorist attack.”
The House passed the measure on a 257-171 vote, with 43 Democrats and 214 Republicans voting in favor, and 156 Democrats, 14 Republicans and one independent opposed.
When it was enacted in 2001, the Patriot Act contained 16 provisions that were considered new grants of investigative authority. Congress attached sunsets to those provisions, requiring that they expire this year unless specifically renewed.
Republican leaders said 13 of those provisions didn’t need renewed sunsets. Of the three others, the House bill limits one and sunsets two in 2015 unless Congress renews them.
Those two provisions allow the government to conduct “roving wiretaps,” which monitor all of a person’s electronic communications rather than a particular phone line, and obtain business documents and library patron records without the knowledge of the person being investigated.
The Bush administration opposed those restrictions in a statement of policy yesterday.
“The Department of Justice has demonstrated through 18 recent hearings before Congress that the provisions that would be subject to sunset … have been employed very effectively in the war on terror with no verified instance of abuse,” the administration statement said.
Nevertheless, after the bill was passed, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales praised the House vote for its “measured deliberation and a public debate,” and said the chamber had “again provided the brave men and women of law enforcement with critical tools in their efforts to combat terrorism.”
House Republican leaders, preventing further defiance of the White House, used their control of the floor debate to block amendments introduced by Democrats and some Republicans who wanted to add more sunsets or further restrict the government’s ability to secretly peruse library records.
“Democrats want to sunset these provisions. Why are you afraid to have a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives on that provision? Why do you fear the democratic process?” asked Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.
Republican supporters said the Patriot Act has undergone plenty of scrutiny that has shown no evidence of abuse. They also said most of the same tools are available to investigators in regular criminal and civil proceedings.
Democrats said those tools are used in terror investigations based on suspicion rather than evidence of a crime. They particularly sought more limits on the provision allowing investigators to obtain business and library records.
“Virtually anyone could have their records seized,” said Rep. Rick Boucher, Virginia Democrat. “You could sit in a concert near someone who is a suspected foreign agent and potentially your records could be seized.”
The House margin of fewer than 90 votes was a retreat from four years ago. The original Patriot Act passed in October 2001 by a vote of 357-66, a margin of almost 300 votes. In 2001, it passed the Senate by a vote of 98-1.
The Senate is considering its own version of the bill.
The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday unanimously passed a measure that includes four-year sunsets on the same two provisions as the House bill. The Senate bill goes further than the House in restricting many of the other 14 renewed provisions.
Some lawmakers promised a fight to sunset the other provisions on the full Senate floor.
“There’s still a lot of uneasiness about this legislation in middle America, and I think we need to pay attention to that,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican. “I believe it’s very important for us to send a message of comfort to the American people that not just the two provisions in this bill will be sunsetted.”