Wednesday, December 14, 2005

House Ready, Senate Balks on Patriot Act

Those who would put security over liberty, deserve neither.

                                                        Ben Franklin said it...We mean it!

By JESSE J. HOLLAND, Associated Press Writer

Republican lawmakers urged quick renewal of the expiring portions of the USA Patriot Act on Wednesday, arguing that the nation's safety could be endangered if parts of the government's premier anti-terrorism law are allowed to expire at the end of the year.

"It's important to the security of this country," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., as the GOP-controlled House prepared to debate and pass reauthorization language before the Dec. 31 expiration date.

But reauthorization may be hitting snags in the Senate, where some GOP and Democratic senators are dissatisfied with a compromise worked out last week between key Republicans in the House and Senate.

The legislation's opponents want the current law extended for only three more months so they can continue debating and working on changing some of the Patriot Act's provisions.

"I think we should tread very, very cautiously and slowly," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

"At a time when so much of the world questions our commitment to our own values, I urge my colleagues to show the American people and the world that we will defend our country but we will do so in a way that protect those rights that make it worth defending," said Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., who called on lawmakers to reject the House-Senate compromise.

At least one senator, Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, is threatening to filibuster the bill.

House leaders and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Tuesday warned the bill's opponents that they could be putting the country in danger by holding up the Act's reauthorization.

"The consequence of the Patriot Act expiring on December 31st is going to be putting the American people at greater risk," House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said.

Added Gonzales: "The tools in the reauthorization of the Patriot Act are very important to the success of the Department of Justice in protecting this country."

For the White House and congressional Republicans, renewing the centerpiece of President Bush's war on terror is a top priority with the midterm elections coming up next year.

Bush devoted his Saturday radio address to the subject and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., added his voice Sunday.

Congress overwhelmingly passed the Patriot Act after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The law expanded the government's surveillance and prosecutorial powers against suspected terrorists, their associates and financiers.

The vast majority of the Patriot Act would remain in force even if the House-Senate agreement to renew the expiring provisions fails. The reauthorization language would extend for four years two of the Patriot Act's most controversial provisions — authorizing roving wiretaps and permitting secret warrants for books, records and other items from businesses, hospitals and organizations such as libraries.

Those provisions would expire in four years unless Congress acted on them again.

Included in the House-Senate accord is a measure to restrict and record the sale of products necessary to cook methamphetamine, including ingredients in many cold medicines. If passed, the act would also give $99 million a year for five years to arrest and prosecute dealers and traffickers, plus $20 million for two years to help children affected by the meth trade.

"Doing so will send a strong signal that Congress is serious about fighting the scourge of meth," said Rep. Mark Kennedy (news, bio, voting record), R-Minn. "We must send a signal to the law enforcement officers who wake up every morning to protect their families that we stand with them in the fight against drugs and we will give them every tool we can."

About a dozen Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are complaining that the Patriot Act gives government too much power to investigate people's private transactions, including bank, library, medical and computer records. They also say it doesn't place enough limits on the FBI's use of National Security Letters, which compel thirds parties to produce those documents during terrorism investigations.

Senate Democrats joined by some libertarian-leaning Republicans want to extend the expiring provisions of the law by three months to give Congress time to add more protections against what they say are excessive police powers.

"There's no reason to compromise right to due process, the right to a judicial review, fair and reasonable standards of evidence in the pursuit of our security," said Sen. John E. Sununu (news, bio, voting record), R-N.H., one of several senators urging Congress to move the expiration date to March 31.

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On the Net:

Justice Department's Web site on the USA Patriot Act: http://www.lifeandliberty.gov/

ACLU's Patriot Act Web site: http://www.aclu.org/safefree

 

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