Members of the U.S. Senate are looking for a compromise to prevent an anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act from expiring at the end of next week. Legislation to renew the law was blocked last week by a group of senators who were concerned the measure did not go far enough in protecting civil liberties. It is one of several difficult issues that must be resolved before the Senate can adjourn for the year.
The Patriot Act, which was enacted in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, gives the federal government expanded powers to track suspected terrorists.
If there is one issue on which all lawmakers can agree, it is that no one wants the law to expire.
But that may happen on December 31 if the Senate cannot find a way to address concerns of most minority Democrats and some majority Republicans that legislation to renew the Patriot Act does not include adequate civil liberties protections. Those senators blocked the measure from coming to a floor vote last week in an effort to press for changes in the bill.
Senator John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican, is leading an effort to briefly extend the current law to allow more time to craft legislation with stronger civil liberties safeguards.
"I think we could work through the modest differences that remain on the Patriot Act," he said. "We could pass a three month extension of the existing Patriot Act to allow us to work through those differences."
Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, agrees.
"If we simply extend the Patriot Act, not end it, extend it, we can try to make it better," he said.
But the Bush administration opposes any short-term extension of the current law. White House spokesman Scott McClellan Tuesday again called on the Senate to renew the Patriot Act, as the House of Representatives did earlier this month.
"A minority of Senators need to stop their delaying tactics and stop standing in the way of providing our law enforcement and intelligence community with the tools they need to protect us here at home," he said. "We cannot afford to be without this vital law for a single moment in the war on terrorism. It is set to expire, but the terrorist threat
will not expire."
The standoff over the Patriot Act renewal is becoming political fodder for lawmakers who have an eye on mid-term elections next year, when one-third of the Senate and all 435 House seats will be up for grabs.
The Senate's top Democrat, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, says most Republicans, including President Bush, will be to blame if the anti-terrorism law expires because they oppose giving lawmakers more time to address concerns about civil liberties in the renewal legislation.
"The burden is on President Bush," said Mr. Reid. "If the Patriot Act expires, he and his Republican allies in the Senate bear the full responsibility for putting our nation at risk."
Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, says most Democrats deserve the blame, because they blocked the bill from coming to a vote.
"Obviously, they killed the Patriot Act [renewal] when they did not allow it to be voted on," he said.
Most Senators agree the legislation to renew the law would be approved by a majority of lawmakers if they could act on it. In a procedural move last week, the Senate voted 52 to 47 to end debate on the bill, eight short of the two-thirds majority needed to move the legislation to the floor for a vote.
The bill to renew the law includes provisions dealing with wiretaps and court orders for records from businesses, libraries and bookstores. Opponents say these would give the government access to private records of citizens without having to demonstrate a connection between the records and a suspected foreign terrorist or terrorist organization.
The measure also calls on the government to notify people within 30 days after their homes or businesses are searched under a so-called "sneak and peek" warrant, which allows police to conduct secret searches of private homes and businesses and inform the owners later.
It is not clear what will happen to the Patriot Act, whether it will be allowed to expire or whether there will be a last-minute compromise.
Some Republican leaders said they would agree to a long-term extension of the current law, between one and four years, although most Democrats oppose this.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee told the Associated Press in an interview Monday he would consider a deal only as a last resort. But by Tuesday, he sounded a harder line.
"I have made it very clear where I stand. I am opposed to these extensions," said Mr. Frist. "Right now, we have a better bill to make all of you safer. It is inexcusable for this body to leave here without passing a bill that everybody agrees makes you safer."
The Patriot Act renewal is one of several important legislative matters to be decided before the Senate adjourns for the year.
Senators also have to pass legislation dealing with defense spending and reducing the federal budget deficit, bills that already have been passed by the House. A vote on the deficit reduction package is expected to be so close that Vice President Dick Cheney cut short an overseas diplomatic mission so that he would be available to cast a tie-breaking vote in his role as President of the Senate. Mr. Cheney was in Pakistan when he received word that his vote might be required.