The U.S. House of Representatives has voted 251-174 to renew key provisions of the anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act. House action sets the stage for what is expected to be more difficult debate in the Senate on the law approved overwhelmingly by Congress after the September 11, 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attacks.
With a December 31 deadline looming, by which time key provisions would expire, the House voted to renew the Patriot Act, which President Bush has called the most important domestic tool of the government in preventing future terrorist attacks.
Debates have raged for months, with Democrats pushing for changes to provide greater protections for civil liberties.
Republicans argued that extending the law by three months, as Democrats and some Republicans had urged to allow more time to debate specific controversial provisions, would make Americans vulnerable to new terrorism.
"The consequence of letting the Patriot Act expire will be a boon to terrorists, because they will be able to exploit all of the vulnerabilities in our legal system that allowed them to pull [the September 11, 2001 attacks] off," said Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner.
Democrats argued that even with changes agreed to between House and Senate conferees, the legislation to renew the Patriot Act still gives the government too much power that could be abused.
"All of us support providing law enforcement officers with the tools they need to combat terrorism. In doing so, we must also preserve the balance between security and civil liberties and to recognize that not all of the tools law enforcement officers want are tools that they legitimately need," said Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic Leader.
A House-Senate compromise announced last week favored the Senate version of legislation to renew key Patriot Act provisions.
Among 16 provisions, two involving wiretaps and special court orders to obtain records from businesses, libraries and bookstores would be extended for four years.
The Bush administration said it responded to lawmaker's concerns about civil liberties, adding more than 30 safeguards.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spoke on Capitol Hill just before the House vote to renew the law.
"It includes a host of other protections for civil liberties which we believe is important. But the bill reflects a position where the Department of Justice can continue to do its job in protecting the national security of this country," he said.
Although the House voted by a comfortable margin in favor of renewing the Patriot Act, the legislation faces a much more difficult road in the Senate which must also approve the conference report.
Senate Democrats joined by some Republicans complain that the renewal legislation still gives the government too much power to investigate people's private records using such tools as National Security Letters, administrative procedures that bypass the necessity to get a subpoena from a judge.
"The Congress should not rush ahead to enact flawed legislation to meet a deadline that is within our power to extend," said Senate Democrat Patrick Leahy. "We owe it to the American people to get this right. America can do better," he said.
Just after the House vote, President Bush issued a statement urging the Senate to approve the legislation promptly, saying that in the war on terror, the nation cannot afford to be without the Patriot Act for a single moment.