Lawmakers compromise on Patriot Act extension

Andrew Zajac Chicago Tribune Dec. 9, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - House and Senate negotiators approved an extension of the controversial USA Patriot Act on Thursday, but a bipartisan group of senators pledged to try to block final passage, and at least one lawmaker, Sen. Russell Feingold, threatened a filibuster.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the new legislation, which would extend and modestly alter a group of anti-terror laws hastily passed following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was "not a perfect bill, but a good bill."

"There is no justification for not fixing this thing now," said Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. "There was a unanimous vote in the Senate to change it in important areas and the conference committee disregarded the view of the Senate, ran amok, and said we are going to try to jam this thing through, and that is plain unacceptable."

Feingold vowed to filibuster the bill if it came to the Senate floor in its current form, but conceded that Republicans might be able to get enough votes to cut off debate. He said he was troubled by three provisions in the act: allowing the government to have access to people's library and business records without proof of a direct connection to terrorism, overly broad search authority, and the use of so-called "national security letters" to demand information from businesses and then require them to keep it secret.

Both the House and Senate are expected to vote on the bill next week.

While there is little debate from Feingold or anyone else in Congress about the need for police agencies to have enhanced information-gathering powers to thwart terrorism, the Patriot Act has been shadowed by unease about whether there were enough safeguards built in to keep authorities from abusing power.

As a hedge against government overreach, lawmakers specified that 16 provisions of the act would expire at the end of the 2005 unless renewed, setting the stage for the current debate.

Initially, the strongest push for reforms came from an unusual coalition of conservatives and liberals who are civil libertarians and dub themselves Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances.

By October, reformers received an unexpected boost from powerful corporate business interests, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, worried about the breadth of government requests for information and a lack of an adequate judicial process to contest demands for records.

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