Senate Blocks Patriot Act Legislation

By Richard B. Schmitt

Los Angeles Times

December 16, 2005

The Senate, in a bipartisan show of strength, blocked legislation today to renew the USA Patriot Act — a surprising and dramatic rebuff to President Bush that reflected rising concern over his handling of the war on terrorism.

The failed vote to end debate and consider a bill that the House easily approved this week left the fate of the terror-fighting law, critical portions of which are due to expire Dec. 31, unclear at the eleventh hour. Four Republicans broke ranks.

It was the second policy reversal in as many days for the president who, on Thursday, bowed to congressional pressure and agreed to accept a formal ban on the use of cruel or inhumane treatment of U.S. detainees. The administration had said such a restriction might undermine U.S. interrogation efforts.

The vote coincided with a published report in today's New York Times that Bush authorized a program to eavesdrop on hundreds of Americans after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 without getting the approval of a court. The story reported that some constitutional scholars thought the activities might have broken federal law.

The Senate fell seven votes short of cutting off the threatened filibuster of the Patriot Act reauthorization legislation. The vote was 53 to 46. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) changed sides as the outcome became apparent in a procedural move to preserve the right to call for another vote at a later date.

Critics of the House-backed bill, which would extend 16 expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, have proposed a three-month extension of the law in its current form to work out differences. But supporters of the law said they might prefer to have it expire rather than subject it to future tinkering.

Frist said he was not giving up and indicated that he would try to corral votes over the next two days before Congress adjourns for the holidays.

"The debate will continue on this very important bill," he said. "We will not see a short-term extension."