In a bipartisan vote, the U.S. Senate Friday blocked passage of a bill reauthorizing controversial surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act. Revelations last night that President Bush signed a secret order in 2002 authorizing spying on U.S. citizens without a court order spurred some senators to reject the bill.
The bill would create a four-year extension for provisions allowing the government to demand that businesses turn over personal records of customers without showing a link between the records and a suspected foreign terrorist. American businesses have expressed concern that this requirement is becoming increasingly costly to comply with and that it poses a growing potential for liability.
Forty-seven senators rejected a motion to end debate on the Patriot Act reauthorization and bring it to a vote. The bill, which the House of Representatives passed Wednesday, represents the work of a conference committee made up of House and Senate members attempting to reconcile the two chambers differing versions of the legislation.
Earlier in the year, the Senate unanimously passed an extension of the Patriot Act that included several check and balances on the governments growing domestic surveillance powers, but those protections were eliminated by the conference committee. Following passage of the conference bill by the House, a bipartisan coalition of six senators, led by Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and John Sununu, R-N.H., vowed to block the bill out of concern for civil liberties.
A news report Thursday night by the New York Times revealing that in 2002 Bush signed a secret executive order authorizing the National Security Agency to monitor the e-mail, phone calls and other communications of U.S. citizens in the United States without a court order prompted senators to press strenuously for more civil liberties protections.
“I went to bed last night unsure how to vote on this legislation,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “Todays revelation that the government listened in on hundreds of phone conversations without getting a warrant is shocking. There ought to be discussion. There ought to be debate.”
Calling the secret order an example of “Big Brother run amok,” Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said that more oversight of police powers is needed.
“For past three years this administration has been eavesdropping on hundreds of calls without warrants or oversight,” Kennedy said. “This administration feels it is above the law.”
Defending parties in the administration who prompted Bush to suspend elements of the spying authorized by the secret order, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said that the Judiciary Committee will conduct oversight next year. Specter argued that misperception of the Patriot Act reauthorization confused the debate.
“This bill is not understood by senators making statements,” Specter said. “They dont know the bill.”
Some of the bills proponents said that those who blocked it would be responsible for permitting important police powers to expire.
“God help us if theres some kind of terrorist attack when we are not protected by the Patriot Act. We will have to answer to that,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. “If you vote against cloture, you are voting to allow the Patriot Act to expire.”
Senators seeking more time to negotiate the bill dismissed the threat.
“It is shameful to threaten that that is what will happen if the Senate doesnt pass the conference report,” said Feingold . “Now is not the time for brinksmanship or threats.”
Proponents of the bill also held out the threat of future terrorist attacks to encourage passage.
“The Patriot Act expires on Dec. 31, but the terrorist threat does not,” said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn. “Do we retreat to the days before 911 when terrorists slipped through the cracks? A vote against the Patriot Act amounts to defeat and retreat at home.”
Senators who blocked the bill are seeking a three-month extension of the Patriot Act to allow time to negotiate civil liberties protections.
“One thing that should unite all of us is our opposition to terrorism,” Leahy said. “We should reject the concept that we can have Americans spy on Americans with no checks or balances.”
Frist said that he does not support such an extension and that Bush will veto it.