WASHINGTON — Congress gave final approval Thursday to a temporary extension of parts of the Patriot Act, a step that merely postpones a burgeoning political debate over the controversial terrorism law and its implications for civil liberties in the United States.
President Barack Obama is expected to sign the legislation into law, forming an unusual coalition with Republican leaders to prevent three key provisions favored by intelligence officials from expiring at the end of the month.
But an equally unusual coalition opposes the extension, composed of congressional Democrats and conservatives — veteran Republicans as well as new lawmakers who won their seats with support from the tea party movement.
The three expiring provisions authorize federal officials to use so-called roving wiretaps to keep track of unidentified suspects as they move from place to place and device to device; to obtain library records and other personal information; and to follow foreigners who have no known terrorism connections. All such surveillance activities require court orders.
The three-month extension gives Republican leaders and administration officials time to forge a new political strategy and allows opponents room to propose reforms.
"We cannot afford to leave our intelligence officials without … the tools they need to keep America safe," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
But civil liberties advocates said the provisions lack proper privacy safeguards. Foreshadowing the coming debate, Republicans said they want to make the law permanent, while civil liberties groups said they will press for continued expiration dates to ensure congressional oversight.
"There's going to be a tension between those who want to put some very modest checks and balances in the law and those who might use this as an opportunity to seek more spying authority," said Michelle Richardson, legal counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.