Friday, December 23, 2005

Congress Extends Patriot Act for One Month

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., speaks about the one-month extention of the Patriot Act during a press conference in the Capitol, Thursday, Dec. 22, 2005, in Washington. The House of Representatives passed a one-month extension of the Patriot Act on Thursday and sent it to the Senate for final action as the U.S. Congress scrambled to prevent expiration of anti-terror law enforcement provisions on Dec. 31. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

This is from Yahoo News:

WASHINGTON - Congress on Thursday approved a one-month extension of the Patriot Act and sent it to President Bush in a pre-Christmas scramble to prevent many of its anti-terrorism provisions from expiring Dec. 31.

The Senate, with only Sen. John Warner (news, bio, voting record), R-Va., present, approved the Feb. 3 expiration date four hours after the House, with a nearly empty chamber, bowed to Rep. James Sensenbrenner's refusal to agree to a six-month extension.

Congress can pass legislation with only a few lawmakers present as long as no member of the House or Senate objects. The Senate session lasted four minutes.

Sensenbrenner, chairman of the
House Judiciary Committee, said the shorter extension would force swifter Senate action and had the support of the White House and Speaker
Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. The Senate reconvenes Jan. 18 and the House Jan. 26.

"A six-month extension, in my opinion, would have simply allowed the Senate to duck the issue until the last week in June," the Wisconson Republican told reporters.

Most Senate Democrats and a few libertarian-leaning Republicans united against a House-Senate compromise that would have renewed several expiring provisions permanently while extending some other for another four years.

Democrats were pleased with a short-term extension, whether for six months or just a few weeks.

"The amount of time is less important than the good-faith effort that will be needed in improving the Patriot Act to strike the right balance in respecting Americans liberty and privacy, while protecting their security," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (news, bio, voting record), D-Vt., the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

"We're happy to agree to a shorter-term extension of the Patriot Act," said Rebecca Kirszner, an aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "The important thing is to strike the right balance between liberty and security."

House passage marked the latest step in a stalemate that first pitted Republicans against Democrats in the Senate, then turned into an intramural GOP dispute.

Without action by Congress, several provisions enacted in the days following the 2001 terror attacks would have expired. Bush has repeatedly urged Congress not to let that happen.

Now this is interesting. First--like it or not--both houses are ducking this issue. The debate here is that the Republicans, under President Bush's urging, want to make certain provisions in the Patriot Act permanent. These provisions include roving wiretaps, which allow investigators to listen in on any telephone and tag any computer they feel is suspect in a terrorist case. Democrats are refusing to allow this provision to be permanent, arguing that such roving wiretaps infringe on American citizens Fourth Amendment rights. The Senate was willing to give a six-month extension, which would bring the debate on the Patriot Act well in the middle of the congressional midterm elections. But the House decided to reduce this extension to one month, bringing the Patriot Act up for debate in February. Obviously, both sides want to duck this issue for the end of this term, allowing congressmen to return home for their Christmas break. The president will not allow the Patriot Act to expire, and will quickly sign it before the Dec. 31 deadline.

The problem with the Patriot Act is that it does to the heart of the issue of wiretaps, security, and American citizens civil liberties. How much authority should the government have in issuing wiretaps to listen in on American citizens? Should they be allowed to secretly wiretap American citizens calls without a court order? Where do the interests of national security collide with the Fourth Amendment rights? The Democrats and moderate Republicans are united in pushing for safeguards to protect civil liberties--especially now, considering the latest stories of the NSA and Pentagon domestically spying on Americans. This is an extraordinary power, fraught with the temptation of abuse. And the Bush White House has clearly shown that it is willing to destroy Americans Fourth Amendment civil rights in the interests of "national security." That's the debate.

So it has been extended out of the winter break. Come February, there will, again, be a bloody fight in Congress over the Patriot Act. And I'm not sure where it will go, considering the possibility of a Democratic filibuster on this measure. Stay tuned.

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