WASHINGTON - Several Senate Republicans who are key to extension of the Patriot Act reached a tentative agreement with the White House Thursday on minor changes to the terror-fighting law that has been stalled in Congress.
Sen. John Sununu (news, bio, voting record), R-N.H., and three other GOP lawmakers — all of whom joined with Democrats last year to block a long-term extension of the law — arranged a late-afternoon news conference to announce their accord with the administration.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan pre-empted them, though, saying the changes "continue to build upon the civil liberties protections that are in place but do so in a way that doesn't compromise our national security priorities."
"We're pleased that this important legislation is moving forward," he said.
A GOP agreement would put Senate Democrats in a politically difficult position of deciding whether to choose between renewing their filibuster on an issue of national security.
The Patriot Act was originally passed within days of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has been an important weapon in the government's arsenal for tracking suspected terrorists.
Legislation to renew the law was blocked last year when critics said its provisions shortchanged civil liberties, particularly in the cases of individuals who were not suspected of terrorist activities themselves, but might have had innocent dealings with suspects.
Also at issue was concern over the government's ability to demand information from libraries about the activities of suspected terrorists.
Even before the agreement was announced, Republicans and Democrats clashed over the value of the changes the White House had agreed to in private negotiations with Sununu and GOP Sens. Larry Craig of Idaho, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
No immediate details were available on the changes they wrung from the White House. These Republicans had joined a Democratic-led filibuster late last year that blocked passage at the time of a bill extending the life of the law. Critics claimed that the versions before Congress would have given shortshrift treatment to people's civil liberties.
Instead of a long-term extension, lawmakers decided to extend the government's power to conduct surveillance against suspected terrorists with a short-term bill. The current extension expires March 10.
The congressional officials declined to be identified by name, saying they did not want to pre-empt the news conference.
Sununu was joined by Republican Sens. Larry Craig of Idaho, Lisa Murkowski and Alaska and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska in supporting a filibuster by 41 Democrats in December. Democrats could still block the new version if all of them who opposed the bill then also balk at the new version.
Breaking a filibuster in the 100-member Senate requires 60 votes, compared with a simple majority for passing a bill.
The existing law was to have expired Dec. 31, but Congress has extended it twice while negotiators worked on a compromise.
The agreement would put Democrats in a position of having to choose whether to continue to block a final vote on legislation in the face of unanimous support among Republicans and the administration on an issue of national security.
On Dec. 16, the Senate voted 52-47 to move to a final vote on the legislation, which deals specifically with 16 provisions in the act that Congress wanted reviewed and renewed by the end of last year. That was eight votes short of the 60 needed to end the filibuster.
The original USA Patriot Act was passed five weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001