In an unexpected development, House Republican leaders on Tuesday failed to garner enough support for a bill to renew until December certain controversial sections of the USA PATRIOT Act that would otherwise expire this month. Senate Democrats and Republicans remain divided over whether to change the provisions in the counterterrorism surveillance law to protect civil liberties, or extend them permanently to protect national security.
The Republican-controlled House defeated the measure, H.R.514, by 277-148. A two-thirds majority was required for passage under the expedited voting procedure.
White House officials said President Obama would not veto the bill. However, the administration would prefer a temporary, three-year extension that would allow Congress to reconsider the measures, while providing federal officials with needed enforcement powers for at least the next several years.
The three intelligence-gathering sections set to expire Feb. 28 include permission to execute roving wiretaps of suspects who switch computers or phone numbers to avoid surveillance; to track "lone wolves" -- persons of interest without known links to terrorist organizations; and to obtain records from organizations with a court order. Privacy activists and some lawmakers would like to add judicial oversight provisions to better protect individual rights, but with time running out -- and the Senate contending with three competing versions of the bill -- most observers expect Congress to pass a straight extension.
The House bill would continue the three provisions in the law, which originally was enacted in 2001, until Dec. 8. H.R. 514, introduced Jan. 26, is co-sponsored by Reps. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis.; House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas; and Mike Rogers, R-Mich.
"The ongoing threat from al Qaeda and other terrorist groups continues," Smith said on the House floor Tuesday. "To let these provisions expire would leave every American less safe." The GOP members proposed a one-year extension so Congress could consider making the measures permanent in the near future, while ensuring federal officials have the tools they need to fight terrorism.
Sensenbrenner on Tuesday said he intended to introduce a permanent extension "soon."
Judiciary Ranking Democrat Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., objected to the bill, saying members never had a chance to debate the measure at length, or hold hearings.
On Tuesday, Obama officials issued a statement saying, "The administration would strongly prefer enactment of reauthorizing legislation that would extend these authorities until December 2013. This approach would ensure appropriate congressional oversight by maintaining a sunset, but the longer duration provides the necessary certainty and predictability that our nation's intelligence and law enforcement agencies require as they continue to protect our national security. However, the administration does not object to H.R. 514."
Last week, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, postponed a vote on his proposal, S. 193, for a three-year extension that would include more judicial checks, following a request from GOP members. Senate Republicans then introduced legislation, S. 291, that would make the current provisions permanent.
Meanwhile, on Feb. 3, committee member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., split with Leahy to introduce a bill, S. 289, that would fulfill the administration's wishes by enacting a straight, three-year renewal. Leahy then reintroduced his bill as S. 290 to allow a second attempt at a committee vote or direct consideration on the Senate floor, if Democratic leadership is agreeable, congressional aides said.
Leahy staffers on Tuesday said, as of now, he plans to try voting on his bill in committee, perhaps next week, after members return from this week's retreat. The office does not know the schedule for next week's floor votes, they added.
"It should not take an entire year to pass improvements to these provisions, which we should have adopted last year, and we should not extend this debate into an election year and risk that some will play politics with our national security," Leahy said on Tuesday afternoon in anticipation of House passage.
Senate leadership and aides for the minority leader were not immediately available for comment.