Key Democratic senators floated a proposal today to extend three expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act until May, essentially kicking the can down the road, but giving lawmakers more breathing room before the measures expire at the end of this month.
In short, no changes would be made to the expiring provisions in the short term. The plan was greeted favorably by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who is the leading advocate for reforming the provisions to ensure that the government is not abusing power and that constitutional rights of U.S. citizens are protected.
Leahy has put forward a bill making changes to the law. His bill is scheduled to be marked up by Judiciary on Thursday.
"I wouldn't have any problem with that," Leahy said of a short-term extension, during an interview. "We'll still bring it up in committee on Thursday, but I have no problem with that, so it takes a little bit of the pressure off."
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., also endorsed the idea.
"It may be that this will be extended temporarily again until May ... and then there will be a full-fledged debate on it," Lieberman said. "That's what was being discussed, and that's OK with me. I support the PATRIOT Act as it is. I think these three provisions are very sensible."
The three provisions expire on February 28 if Congress does not act. Senior intelligence officials in the Obama administration have repeatedly asked Congress not to let the provisions expire.
The three expiring provisions give the government the ability to use roving wiretaps to monitor the communications of suspects; obtain special court orders forcing businesses to turn over records; and conduct surveillance on a so-called "lone wolf," or somebody who is not knowingly associated with terrorists.
"There are some ongoing investigations that really require some of the authorities that are in the PATRIOT Act, and if the act expires on February 28 that would seriously compromise some critical national-security, homeland-security investigations," Lieberman said. "It's not the best result, but it's not a bad result to extend it a couple of months."
The plan, however, puts the Senate at odds with House Republicans, who pushed through a bill late on Monday to reauthorize the provisions until December 8. Key House Republicans say that time is needed to fully vet changes to the law.
Some critics point out that campaigns for next year's elections will likely be heating up by December, making debate on a matter of national security tricky.
Still to be determined is how a short-term extension might go over with senators who have put forward other ideass. One proposed Senate measure would reauthorize the provisions until 2013. Anotherwould extend the provisions permanently.