Thursday, November 17, 2005

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is threatening to block renewal of the USA Patriot Act, which stalled in the Senate yesterday with zero signatures, from advancing to a floor vote.

The House and Senate on Wednesday sent a draft agreement for members to renew certain sections of law, which passed in the aftermath of September 11 in an effort to combat terrorism.

However, Senate critics say the compromise “retreats significantly from the bipartisan consensus we reached in the Senate.”

Republican Sens. Larry E. Craig of Idaho, John E. Sununu of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska were joined by Democratic Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin and Ken Salazar of Colorado in a letter to negotiators and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“The conference report, in its current form, is unacceptable,” the senators said. “If further changes are not made, we will work to stop this bill from becoming law.”

An unspecified number of House members began signing the draft yesterday. It is expected the bill will be brought up for a vote there, though a date has not been set. Officials from the House and Senate Judiciary Committee could not be reached for comment.

“They are still trying to negotiate with their critics; that’s why they’re not out there supporting this,” said Timothy Edgar, national security policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “They are furiously trying to get around Craig, Durbin, Sununu and Feingold who are threatening to hold it up,” Mr. Edgar said.

The provisions, which include the extension of “sneak and peek warrants,” searches of library and business records, and roving wiretaps, will expire Dec. 31, unless reauthorized by Congress. The Senate is expected to recess by the end of today until Dec. 12.

“This is a conference report that was supposed to be announced Monday evening, and we’re sitting here on Thursday at 4 p.m., and it still has not been announced. That’s not a good sign for those who are trying to sell this deal,” Mr. Edgar said yesterday.

The compromise puts a seven-year sunset on provisions allowing wiretapping and records searches, as opposed to the four-year deadline included in the Senate version.

It would also allow “the government to obtain sensitive personal information on a mere showing of relevance. This would allow government fishing expeditions,” the senators wrote.

“As business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have argued, the government should be required to convince a judge that the records they are seeking have come connection to a suspected terrorist or spy,” the letter said.

Targets of a “sneak and peek” warrant search would not learn that their homes, business or backgrounds have been searched for after 30 days, rather than seven days in the Senate agreement.

“We cannot support a conference report that would eliminate the modest protections for civil liberties that we agreed to unanimously in the Senate,” the letter said.

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