In an embarrassing defeat for President Bush, the Republican-led Senate Friday failed to renew the anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act, which expires at the end of the month. Many senators were concerned the measure did not go far enough in protecting civil liberties.
In a procedural vote, 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.
Opposition to renewing the Patriot Act, which gives the federal government greater powers to track terrorists, had been building among Senate Democrats and Republicans in recent days. Many lawmakers believed the bill would give the government too much power.
The opposition was bolstered Friday morning by a report in the New York Times newspaper saying President Bush had authorized a U.S. intelligence agency to eavesdrop, without warrants, on hundreds of people in the United States since 2002. The report raises questions as to whether such a move was legal.
Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, spoke for many.
"This is Big Brother run amok," said Ted Kennedy. "With these new developments, we must take a step back and not rush the Patriot Act, further risking our civil protections. The entire world is watching to see how we strike the balance between intelligence gathering and the Constitution."
Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat and the only senator to have voted against the Patriot Act when it was first enacted after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, went even further:
"It is truly astonishing to read that this administration would go this far beyond the bounds of the statutes in the Constitution, so we in this institution have the duty and the obligation to get to the bottom of this," said Russ Feingold. "I hope this morning's revelation drives home to people that this body must be absolutely vigilant in our oversight of government power. I do not want to hear again from the attorney general or anyone else on this floor that this government has shown it can be trusted to use the power we give it with restraint and care."
Republicans too are concerned about inadequate civil liberties' safeguards in the Patriot Act bill. Senator Larry Craig of Idaho:
"I would urge my colleagues [to use] calm, and sensitivity to the fundamental civil liberties of our country, as we work so hard to balance them against our country and our Constitution and our government's primary responsibility, and that is to keep us safe and secure in a free environment," said Larry Craig.
The legislation, a compromise between bills passed earlier by the House of Representatives and the Senate, received final House approval earlier this week. It would extend or make permanent provisions of the law set to expire at the end of the month. The provisions include dealing with wiretaps and court orders for records from businesses, libraries and book stores. 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.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist argued to little avail that the bill does have more civil liberties' protections then the current law, and includes more judicial review and congressional oversight:
"To those who still harbor concerns with this bill, I have a simple reply: we have more to fear from terrorists than this Patriot Act compromise," said Bill Frist.
After the vote, Senator Frist, with backing from the White House, urged senators to keep debating the bill in hopes of securing greater support for the measure.
A group of bipartisan Senators introduced legislation to extend the current law by three months to give lawmakers more time to craft a revised bill with greater civil liberties protections. But Senator Frist and the White House, who are hoping to blame Senate Democrats for scuttling the Patriot Act, oppose that measure.