Presidential push fails to quell GOP fear of Patriot Act
By Alexander Bolton
A group of libertarian-minded Republicans in Congress is blocking President Bush’s effort to strengthen domestic counterterrorism laws and reauthorize the USA Patriot Act, which the president has made one of his top domestic priorities this year.
As a result of this opposition, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was forced last week to cancel panel consideration of legislation that would have given law-enforcement officials more tools to pursue suspected terrorists.
patrick g. ryan
President Bush: Pushing for Patriot Act
As other administration policy initiatives — such as a manned mission to Mars — have languished in Congress, Bush has emphasized the importance of renewing the Patriot Act this year, even though provisions of the law don’t expire until the end of next year.
Late last month, Bush launched a national tour to press Congress to reauthorize the controversial law immediately. Many Democrats and some conservatives have criticized the law as overly broad and intrusive.
Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for the Judiciary Committee, said work on the Sensenbrenner bill was canceled last week because committee Democrats had demanded more time to examine it. Lungren emphasized that it was not related to the Patriot Act.
But a group of lawmakers, including some Republicans, saw it differently.
One GOP lawmaker on the panel — who asked to remain anonymous to avoid angering the chairman — said Republicans had also objected to the legislation. The lawmaker added that Sensenbrenner had informed his GOP colleagues the panel would consider the measure shortly before the scheduled markup.
Sensenbrenner declined to answer questions on the subject.
Among other powers, the legislation would have given law-enforcement officials the power to compel compliance with administrative subpoenas, one of the most controversial elements of the Patriot Act that a sizeable group of Republicans on the Hill are trying to abolish. Administrative subpoenas may be issued by law-
enforcement agencies without the approval of a court.
The legislation would also have closed a gap in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by defining noncitizens who engage in terrorist activities but are not affiliated with an international terrorist group as agents of a foreign power and made it easier to withhold classified information from criminal defendants.
Last week’s minirebellion is symptomatic of broader opposition among Republicans in the House and Senate to provisions of the Patriot Act that the administration has deemed essential to its battle against terrorism.
Fifty-eight lawmakers, including six Republicans, have co-sponsored legislation sponsored by Rep. Butch Otter (R-Idaho) in the House that would rein in aspects of the Patriot Act.
In the Senate, four Republicans have joined 12 Democrats in co-sponsoring similar legislation introduced by Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), a former head of the Republican Policy Committee and a close friend of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Craig and Ashcroft had dinner together two weeks ago, but they did not discuss their clashing views on the Patriot Act.
The Craig legislation would place greater restrictions on roving wire taps, require law-enforcement officials to notify the targets of “sneak and peek” searches within seven days after a search, restrict the use of nationwide search warrants and amend the section of the Patriot Act that allow for secret searches of library and bookstore records.
Both Otter and Craig emphasized in interviews that they don’t oppose the Patriot Act — they just want to eliminate the excesses that could some day be abused by investigators and prosecutors.
But the administration has made clear to them that it opposes the modifying legislation and argues that, if anything, the Patriot Act needs to be augmented.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of the co-sponsors of the Senate bill, said the administration has privately threatened to veto a bill curbing Patriot Act-expanded law-enforcement powers.
Otter said there is likely more support among Republicans for modifying the Patriot Act than is apparent from the list of colleagues co-sponsoring his legislation.
Otter noted that he had fewer co-sponsors for an amendment he offered last year to the Commerce-Justice-State appropriations bill that would have prohibited the Justice Department from spending money to conduct “sneak and peek” searches. The amendment passed with 309 votes, including 113 from the GOP side of the aisle, but was later pulled from the omnibus appropriations bill by Republican leaders and White House negotiators.
“I think if you take a look at most of those 309 votes, I would say the majority of those and maybe more will surface when the time comes,” said Otter, who acknowledged that the best chance to curb the Patriot Act would arise during a House vote on reauthorization of the act.
Otter also noted that 167 members of the House voted against last year’s intelligence authorization bill after discovering that it expanded the Patriot Act by expanding the types financial institutions — including pawn shops and used-car dealerships — that must surrender records to law-enforcement agents without court-approved subpoenas.
He said that colleagues informed him it was the first time more than 35 lawmakers voted against the intelligence bill.
Perhaps because of broad GOP opposition to key elements of the Patriot Act, Sensenbrenner has made it clear to colleagues that he will not consider reauthorization of the bill until next year.
But by then, Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a centrist, will have become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee if he wins his re-election race and conservatives do not attempt to block Specter’s appointment. If Specter gets the gavel, it would be more difficult for the administration to reauthorize the Patriot Act without significant changes. Specter is one of four Republicans co-sponsoring Craig’s bill seeking to rein in law enforcement powers.
Specter declined to state his position on the Patriot Act, saying it required a sit-down interview to elaborate.
I'm not a big fan of it either...