The U.S. anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act expires next week. Amid concerns about civil liberties' protections, lawmakers are working to prevent the law from lapsing.
With the February 3 deadline approaching, when the Patriot Act expires, President Bush is calling on lawmakers to act swiftly to renew the measure. "Congress must reauthorize the Patriot Act so that our law enforcement and intelligence and homeland security officers have the tools they need to rat out the terrorists, terrorists who could be plotting and planning within our borders. We will do all this and at the same time protect the civil liberties of our people," he said.
But many Senators, mostly Democrats but some Republicans as well, argue that there are not enough civil liberties' protections in legislation reauthorizing the Patriot Act for another four years.
Critics are particularly concerned about provisions that allow federal agents to seize a wide variety of personal and business records from terror suspects with little opportunity for the targets of such probes to challenge the government in court.
It is the second time in two months that Congress faces an imminent expiration of the law.
The Patriot Act was to have expired December 31. But faced with a stalemate over the bill to reauthorize the law as the month was drawing to a close, the Senate and House of Representatives agreed to a five-week extension of the current law.
With that extension coming to an end, lawmakers have made little, if any, progress toward resolving the disagreement over the proposed legislation to renew the law.
That legislation is a compromise between House and Senate-passed bills, but without many of the civil liberties' safeguards in the original Senate bill.
The House of Representatives approved the compromise last year, but a majority of Senators blocked passage of the bill, forcing the short-term extension.
At the time, House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, said the compromise bill has adequate civil liberties' protections, and signaled that the House would not make further compromises. "The Senate is going to have to make some decisions. There should be an up or down vote on whether this carefully crafted conference report, with more than 30 additional safeguards for civil liberties is going to become the law of the United States of America," he said.
The top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, has sent a letter to Sensenbrenner asking to reopen negotiations to modify the legislation to ease the concerns of Senate critics.
Senator John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican who is among those who oppose the compromise measure, has been in contact with Bush administration officials about making changes to the bill to improve its prospects.
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, supports the effort. "I think that the changes that still need to be made are relatively minor, and I would urge the parties, especially all of us who wrote the original Patriot Act, to make that one last effort, and that would include of course, the White House, and the other body (House of Representatives) to do it," he said.
But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, is not optimistic about the chances of modifying the bill. "I know there are discussions to get some additional changes made, and my own view is that those prospects are somewhere between bleak and nonexistent," he said.
Specter says Sensenbrenner, his House counterpart, indicated to him in a recent phone call that he remains opposed to further compromises.
Specter, for his part, says the best option for the Senate is to approve the proposed legislation, rather than allow the Patriot Act to expire. He says he would not support another short-term extension of the current law. "I am not favor of short-term extensions. If you have another short-term extension, it is going to beget another short-term extension," he said.
The Patriot Act, which was first enacted in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, gives the federal government expanded authority to track suspected terrorists.