Months overdue in a midterm election year, the USA Patriot Act renewal cleared a final hurdle in the Senate on Tuesday on its way to President Bush's desk. But the bill's sponsor said he is unsatisfied with the measure's privacy protections and far from done tinkering with the centerpiece of Bush's war on terrorism.
"The issue is not concluded," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa. He said he plans more legislation and hearings on restoring House-rejected curbs on government power.
The Senate voted 69-30 Tuesday - 60 votes were needed - to limit debate and bring the bill to a final vote that could occur as early as today. Both of Florida's senators, Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Bill Nelson, voted to limit debate. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, did not vote. After the bill's expected passage in the Senate, the House would vote and send the legislation to the White House. Sixteen major provisions of the Patriot Act would expire March 10 if President Bush doesn't sign the bill by then.
First passed in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the law has been extended twice for lack of congressional accord over the balance between civil liberties protections and law enforcement tools in terrorism investigations.
Several Democrats voted "no" on the test vote Tuesday to protest the GOP majority's refusal to allow amendments, but said they would vote for the bill on final passage. These lawmakers included Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary Committee's senior Democrat.
Others said they plan to vote against the bill as a whole, but they stand little chance of blocking it. Led by Sens. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., they say the months of haggling produced few meaningful curbs on government power.
Specter agreed on that point. Even as he urged his colleagues to vote this week for the bill, he introduced a separate bill to make the government satisfy a higher threshold for warrantless wiretaps and to set a four-year expiration date for the use of National Security Letters in terrorism investigations.
However, the new bill represents items House Republicans flatly rejected during talks last year.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., has said that when the House approves the renewal and sends it to Bush, his chamber is done with the issue for the year.
That will be none too soon for some lawmakers. The standoff pushed renewing the law into this midterm election year. Senate leaders were forced to find a procedural way of getting the bill to a vote without losing the support of Sensenbrenner, the Bush administration and libertarian-leaning lawmakers - all before March 10.
The solution is a convoluted procedural dance that illustrates the razor-thin zone of agreement when it comes to Bush's terror-fighting law.
Congress will extend the Patriot Act by passing two pieces of legislation. The first is the same accord passed last year by the House and filibustered in the Senate by members who said it contained too few privacy protections.
The second is, in effect, an amendment to the first that adds enough privacy protections to win over those same libertarian-leaning Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is permitting no other amendments, allowing the measure to slide through both houses without extended debate.