- Associated Press -
Senate Democrats have retreated from adding new privacy protections to the nation's primary counterterrorism law, as Republicans refused to lend support and portrayed the majority as willing to harm terror investigations.
Lacking the necessary 60-vote supermajority, Democratic leaders settled on a one-year extension of expiring surveillance and seizure provisions of the USA Patriot Act.
They tossed aside curbs - and greater scrutiny - on government authority agreed to by the Senate Judiciary Committee in October after spirited debate.
The extension passed Wednesday night by voice vote with no debate. The bill goes to the House, but with key sections of the law ready to expire Sunday, there's little chance that changes will be made. Expiration of key anti-terrorism tools, even for a short time, would seriously hamper law enforcement.
The Democratic retreat is an important political victory for Republicans, who gained new ammunition for their election theme that the GOP can better protect America. The outcome is a major disappointment for Democrats and their liberal allies, like the American Civil Liberties Union and supporters who believe the Patriot Act fails to protect Americans' privacy and gives the government too much authority to spy on Americans and seize their property.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., noted that the bill had been approved in committee by a bipartisan majority. He said the measure "should be an example of what Democrats and Republicans can accomplish when we work together, but I understand some Republican senators objected to passing the carefully crafted national security, oversight and judicial review provisions in this legislation."
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on Leahy's committee, set the GOP tone in December when the same provisions faced an earlier expiration date and received a short extension.
"The bill that eventually emerged from the Judiciary Committee does not meet the key test for any national security legislation: First, do no harm," Sessions said. "The bill reported by the committee would make the jobs of our national security officials more difficult."
The Obama administration supported the revisions to the law as approved by the committee.
The three sections of the Patriot act that would stay in force:
_Authorize court-approved roving wiretaps that permit surveillance on multiple phones.
_Allow court-approved seizure of records and property in anti-terrorism operations.
_Permit surveillance against a so-called lone wolf, a non-U.S. citizen engaged in terrorism who may not be part of a recognized terrorist group.
The Judiciary Committee bill would have restricted FBI information demands known as national security letters, and made it easier to challenge gag orders imposed on Americans whose records are seized with these letters.
Library records would have received extra protections. Congress would have closely scrutinized FBI use of the Patriot Act to prevent abuses. Dissemination of surveillance results would have been restricted, and after a time, unneeded records would have been destroyed.
Republicans have been steadily pounding the Obama administration over the closing of the detainee prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as the possibly of holding civilian trials for detainees in the United States. They have also criticized federal agents for informing a Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, of his right to remain silent after 50 minutes of questioning for allegedly trying to ignite explosives on a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas.
If Democrats had allowed the Senate to have a full debate on the Judiciary Committee restrictions, they would have exposed themselves to Republican arguments that Democrats were hurting law enforcement.
With their health care overhaul bill on the ropes and joblessness still high, Democratic lawmakers need a victory.
Not surprisingly, the Democratic retreat didn't please the party's liberal allies, but they recognized the political realities.
"The American Library Association understands why the Democratic leadership has to go with a clean reauthorization, but that doesn't take away the disappointment we have," said Lynne Bradley, the group's chief lobbyist. "It is more than unfortunate that Republicans think they own the ground when it comes to surveillance and national security."
Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the ACLU, said, "Events of the last few months changed the tone in Washington when it comes to national security issues."
"Were it not for the Christmas Day attack, you might have seen a bill with even modest reform go through," she said. "The numbers weren't there."