New York Times
December 16, 2005
WASHINGTON, Dec. 16 - Supporters of the broad anti-terrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act suffered a stinging defeat in the Senate today, falling well short of the 60 votes needed to bring the act to a final vote and leaving it in limbo for the moment.
After an emotional debate about the balance between national security and personal liberties and the very character of the republic, the Senate voted, 52 to 47, to end debate and take a yes-or-no vote on the law itself.
But since 60 votes are required under Senate rules to end debate, the Patriot Act was left hanging. The House of Representatives voted, 251 to 174, last week in favor of the latest version of the bill, which had been worked out in negotiations between the two chambers.
The Senate action today leaves the bill up in the air and due to expire on Dec. 31. President Bush and House Republican leaders had pushed hard for the bill and had spoken strongly against any further compromises. But no one would be surprised if yet another round of talks is undertaken to avoid the prospect of the lawmakers going home for Christmas and allowing the statute to lapse.
Today's Senate debate and vote reflected deep divisions that cut across party lines in ways rarely seen. For instance, Senator Larry Craig, a conservative Republican from Idaho who would be expected to support President Bush on most issues, opposes the present form of the Patriot Act.
"Of all that we do this year that is lasting beyond tomorrow," Mr. Craig said, the decision on the Patriot Act is the most important.
Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican majority leader, unsuccessfully pushed for the vote to end debate and move to the bill itself. "Advance or retreat" in the war on terrorism, he said. "It's as simple as that."
Another supporter of the bill, Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, asserted that if the Patriot Act had been in place before Sept. 11, 2001, the attacks might never have happened. And should another attack occur before the law is reauthorized, "We will have to answer for that," he said.
Supporters of the bill, enacted only days after the Sept. 11 attacks, have called it a vital tool for law enforcement in this new age of terrorism. Its opponents have said it infringes too much on personal liberties - too easily allowing wiretaps and surveillance of library records, for instance - in ways that will not enhance national security.
The measure that was passed in the House but stalled in the Senate today would make permanent 14 of 16 provisions that are set to expire at year's end, while putting in place additional judicial oversight and safeguards against abuse.
Critics of the bill, who insist it does not go far enough to protect individual freedom and privacy, have called for extending the present bill for three months to allow further refinements. But House Republican leaders have so far resisted a three-month extension, as have Mr. Frist and the White House.
President Bush "is not interested in signing any short-term renewal," the president's chief spokesman, Scott McClellan, said after the vote. "We urge them to get this done now and pass that legislation."
Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Republican who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, urged the Senate to vote on the act today. He called it "a balanced bill" that does not have all the civil liberties protections he wanted but one that is, nevertheless, acceptable and would give "important tools to law enforcement, in a balanced way."
Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the panel, urged rejection of the bill in its present form. Yes, he said, there is a threat from terrorism, but "the threat to civil liberties is also very real in America today."
Several senators held up copies of The New York Times, which reported today that President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity, but without court-approved warrants ordinarily required for such surveillance.
Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, called the disclosure "shocking" and said it had impelled him to vote "no" today.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, said the disclosure showed that "this administration feels it's above the law," and that "we cannot protect our borders if we do not protect our ideals."
And Senator Russell D. Feingold. Democrat of Wisconsin and the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act four years ago, said the disclosure of domestic spying "should send a chill down the spine of every senator and every American."
Only two Democrats, Senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Tim Johnson of South Dakota, voted to end debate - that is, in favor of the bill. Several Republican senators voted against ending debate - in other words, against the bill. They were Mr. Craig, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Mr. Frist also voted "no" in the end, but in a purely parliamentary maneuver to allow him to try to bring up the bill again. Thus, the Patriot Act was actually seven votes short of the 60 needed to end debate today.