Conservative groups have found common ground with the liberal American Civil Liberties Union in their opposition to the USA Patriot Act and pledge to wage a high-profile fight against it, claiming even its renewal is shrouded in secrecy.
Former Rep. Bob Barr, who led conservative efforts to impeach President Clinton, is leading a group called “Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances” that is focused exclusively on opposing the renewal of the Patriot Act.
The effort also has the enthusiastic support of three of the most influential conservatives in Washington, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, David Keene of the American Conservative Union and Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum.
“They support this effort because the true conservatives understand the Constitution and understand when it is threatened,” Mr. Barr said. “They are not your neo-cons and typical Washington insiders. This is a broad array of conservative groups.”
Brad Jansen, an adjunct scholar at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, has also joined Mr. Barr’s effort, and said he will prove today that opposition to the Patriot Act is a political winner.
Mr. Jansen is working for the congressional campaign of Tom Brinkman Jr., a state senator in Ohio who is among 11 candidates running in a Republican primary to fill the seat of former Rep. Rob Portman, who was tapped by President Bush as the U.S. trade representative.
The candidates hold nearly identical views on the touchstone issues important in the conservative district in suburban Cincinnati — all are pro-life, and all support the president, the war on terror, gun ownership and tax cuts at every turn.
Only Mr. Brinkman is against the Patriot Act — and polls showed him ahead as the race winds down.
“This is one of the few issues that differentiate the candidates,” Mr. Jansen said, adding that he thinks Mr. Brinkman’s promise to fight for changes in the Patriot Act — something that would put him at odds with Mr. Bush before he could even unpack his boxes on Capitol Hill — has separated the candidate from the pack.
“Virtually all conservatives are concerned about arbitrary government power,” Mr. Jansen said. “This is one of the tenets of our faith and you see it all across the board.”
Mr. Bush has made the renewal of the Patriot Act, which is set to expire unless Congress renews it this year, a priority of his second term.
Fearing trouble ahead, the president devoted two public appearances last week to promoting it, saying “the terrorist threats against us will not expire at the end of the year, and neither should the protections of the Patriot Act.”
Of particular concern of Mr. Barr’s coalition was the decision by the Senate Intelligence Committee to mark up a renewal of the law in a closed session, a move justified by the use of classified information in the hearing.
The committee approved the use of “administrative subpoenas” in the meeting, which would allow the FBI to obtain a suspect’s medical, financial and other private records without first gaining the approval of a federal judge.
The fate of the Intelligence Committee bill for renewal is not clear. The Senate Judiciary Committee can mark up its own bill, an option Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, said he is inclined to do.
But not all conservatives agree with some of the movement’s biggest names. The Heritage Foundation has given its full-throated support to Mr. Bush’s version of the law.
“Bob Barr is going to cast aspersions that only true conservatives think ill of the Patriot Act,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a senior legal research fellow at Heritage. “I’ll put it this way: Ronald Reagan would be for the Patriot Act. And I know that because his former attorney general, Ed Meese, is for the Patriot Act.”
Mr. Rosenzweig said the Patriot Act “has all the checks and balances on police authority that has been around for years,” and that its greatest feature is how it allows intelligence agents and the FBI to share the intelligence they gather.
“That is absolutely essential,” Mr. Rosenzweig said. “Everyone realizes that except for Bob Barr.”