Friday, February 10, 2006

Four Republican senators reached a deal yesterday to drop their opposition to the renewal of the USA Patriot Act, hailed by the White House as crucial in the war against terrorists.

But the agreement involving White House officials and top congressional leaders doesn’t guarantee approval because most Democrats are still on the record opposing the measure.

Republican Sens. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, Larry E. Craig of Idaho, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska had opposed the reauthorization because they said it lacked the appropriate civil liberties protections.

“America’s civil liberty protections are a model to the world,” the four Republicans said in a joint statement yesterday. “We should always strive to balance protection of these freedoms with the essential needs of law enforcement. The substantive, and at times, emotional debate concerning Patriot Act reauthorization reflects the importance of enabling law enforcement to investigate terrorists without sacrificing these rights.”

Under the deal, civil liberties protections have been added regarding the issuance of secret national security subpoenas and federal searches of library records.

“The changes announced today by Senator Sununu strengthen civil liberties protections without hindering the core anti-terrorism safeguards in the Patriot Act,” said Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican. “I expect swift adoption of these changes and the Patriot Act conference report.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, said the modifications should clear the way for passage.

“It appears — and I say ‘appears’ because nothing is ever certain in the United States Senate until the final votes are cast — that we have come to an agreement, at least within the Senate, on modifications for the Patriot Act so that it can be renewed,” he said yesterday.

Once the new provisions are added, the bill must again be approved by both chambers. The new bill is expected to get easy approval from the House, but faces stiff opposition from Senate Democrats.

In December, the four Republicans joined Democrats in filibustering reauthorization of current law, which now expires in March.

With the four Republicans on board, a filibuster would become an all-Democrat move — a prospect that Republicans relish because polls show that voters don’t trust Democrats on national security. As of yesterday, the new bill remained one vote shy of breaking the filibuster.

But the deal gained at least two key Democrat supporters yesterday in Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, both members of the Judiciary Committee.

“It is a substantial improvement,” Mrs. Feinstein said of the new version. “I think it’s important to get this done. And there is a four-year sunset, so we will be able to watch it closely.”

Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, signaled optimism as well.

“I commend my Republican colleagues for working hard to make the Patriot Act better,” he said after the agreement was announced. “Democrats strongly believe we must have all necessary tools to fight terrorism, but we want checks and balances to ensure that these expansive powers are not abused. The deal reached by my Republican colleagues appears to be a step in the right direction.”

Praise from Democrats was not unanimous. Sen. Russell D. Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who led opposition to the bill, said the alterations are “a few small changes” and he would continue to oppose the bill.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was disappointed, too. “A bipartisan coalition in the Senate made a valiant stand to make clear that security and liberty are not mutually exclusive values in America,” he said. “We can and we should have both. But White House naysaying and partisanship have obstructed this from becoming the better bill that it should be, and that is deeply regrettable.”

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