February 1, 2006

House Extends Patriot Act Another 5 Weeks


WASHINGTON, Feb. 1 — The House of Representatives voted this evening to extend the antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act to March 10, giving House and Senate negotiators another five weeks to resolve their long-running dispute over the statute.

The voice vote was on the extension measure offered by Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, who heads the House Judiciary Committee and has been a central figure in the debate. The vote to extend the act was not a surprise, since the alternative for lawmakers was to let it expire on Friday, as scheduled.

“We must extend it, mend it but not end it,” Representative Jane Harmon of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said just before the vote.

Mr. Sensenbrenner offered a strong defense of the Patriot Act, saying that “dozens” of civil rights protections had been installed to answer generally groundless objections of the act’s opponents. “This law has worked,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said. “It has not violated anyone’s rights.”

The Senate was expected to vote either late today or Thursday on an extension. That chamber, too, was likely to agree to another five weeks rather than let the act expire altogether.

The Patriot Act, overwhelmingly approved by Congress shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has long been the subject of fierce debate over the balance between civil liberties and national security. The measure expanded government search and surveillance authority.

Just before breaking for Christmas, the House and Senate approved a five-week extension of the Patriot Act, until Feb. 3, rather than let it expire on Dec. 31, as it would have done without Congressional action.

President Bush has often called the Patriot Act an essential weapon in the battle against terrorism and has urged the lawmakers to make it permanent. He repeated that theme on Tuesday night in his State of the Union address and again today in a speech in Nashville.

“The Patriot Act is set to expire,” Mr. Bush said in Tennessee. “The war against terrorists is not expiring.” He said it was “essential that Congress reauthorize the Patriot Act” so people in law enforcement have the tools they need.

In mid-December, the House passed a measure to make 14 of 16 expiring provisions in the act permanent. But the bill stalled in the Senate, where Democrats and a few Republicans insisted that the civil rights protections in the bill were still inadequate. On Dec. 22, both Houses agreed to an extension of only five weeks.

The two main sticking points are a provision that gives the federal government the power to demand access to library records on what patrons have borrowed, and a provision in the act that gives the federal government the power to demand records without a judge’s approval.

Senate Democrats and a few Senate Republicans have insisted that the civil rights protections in the bill are still inadequate. The issue cut across lines of party and ideology to a degree rarely seen, putting Senators Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin and Larry Craig of Idaho on the same side, for instance.

Mr. Feingold, a relatively liberal Democratic, and Mr. Craig, a very conservative Republican, are far apart in general political philosophy, but they were together this time and were instrumental in blocking a longer extension of the bill. Both insisted that more civil rights protections were need.

Mr. Feingold said today that he would consent to another short extension. “But make no mistake,” he said. “I will strongly oppose any long-term reauthorization of the Patriot Act that does not include modest but critical safeguards to ensure that we can both fight terrorism and protect our American values.”