The U.S. House of Representatives has approved legislation renewing key provisions of the Patriot Act, the law Congress approved in 2001 giving authorities greater powers to investigate suspected terrorists. The action, which followed an 89 to 10 Senate vote last week, sends the bill to President Bush for signature, and comes after months of delay as lawmakers battled over specific provisions.
Final passage by a voice vote came after nearly three months of political battles waged by lawmakers over contentious parts of the Patriot Act, and after numerous appeals from President Bush for Congress to act.
When Congress overwhelmingly approved the Patriot Act in the weeks after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, it called for key provisions to expire after four years so the law's effectiveness could be reviewed.
House action makes all but three of the law's 16 provisions permanent, and imposes stronger safeguards in key areas.
Among the more controversial provisions are so-called roving wiretaps, surveillance of single, or so-called lone-wolf suspected terrorists, and provisions allowing the FBI to obtain business records.
Many lawmakers asserted that even after some 30 changes agreed to last year by majority Republicans, the Patriot Act lacked sufficient protections for civil liberties.
It was primarily that issue that stalled action last December in the Senate, as Democrats and some key Republicans demanded changes.
Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner argued again there is no evidence the act has been abused.
"Intense congressional and public scrutiny has not produced a single substantiated claim that the Patriot Act has been misused to violate American civil liberties," said James Sensenbrenner.
Sensenbrenner argues that opponents of the Patriot Act have tried to distort its provisions and downplay key changes aimed at easing concerns over civil liberties.
Among these changes, persons or businesses receiving a demand from the FBI for documents will be able to consult an attorney and seek appeal to a federal court.
Another compromise exempts libraries from non-specific requests by the FBI for documents and records. Federal officials could still demand such things as computer internet records, if they have specific information pointing to use by suspected terrorists.
Republican Congressman Ric Keller described renewal of the Patriot Act as a step that balances the freedoms of Americans with their security.
"Since we passed the Patriot Act in 2001, we have convicted 212 terrorists and we have frozen $136 million in terrorist assets," said Ric Keller. "Reauthorizing the Patriot Act is purely a matter of common sense."
However, House Democrats like Congressman Dennis Kucinich asserted the law still contains too many provisions that damage civil liberties.
"It offers only superficial reform that would have little if any impact on safeguarding our civil liberties," insisted Dennis Kucinich.
Final action on the Patriot Act came just days before the law, which had been extended to allow for more congressional negotiations, was scheduled to expire on March 10.