GOP Senators Reach Compromise on Patriot Act Renewal

Four Republican senators have come up with a deal to renew the Patriot Act, agreeing to strike certain provisions. Those same four joined with Democrats to filibuster the reauthorization of the act last December, saying the law needed stronger civil liberties protections.

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RENEE MONTAGNE host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Four Republican Senators have come up with a compromise that will allow the USA Patriot Act to be renewed. Those same four joined with Democrats to filibuster the Patriot reauthorization last December, saying the law needed stronger civil liberties protections. The White House has blessed the compromise, but Democrats could still try to block the bill, as NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

Republican Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire has been practicing shuttle diplomacy since the filibuster, trying to work out compromise language with the White House. The Administration has resisted changes to a bill initially approved by a House Senate Conference saying alterations would hinder terror investigations, but Senator Sununu says he's managed to split the difference here and get rid of provisions that bothered him the most, such as a gag order that prohibits anyone from disclosing that they've received an order from the FBI to produce information.

Senator JOHN SUNUNU (Republican, New Hampshire): We have always said that if you're going to impose a gag order, you ought to at least allow citizens to challenge that gag order in a court before a judge.

ABRAMSON: A proposal Sununu is backing would allow people to challenge the gag order in court but they would have to wait a year to do that to avoid interfering with the investigation. Sununu says the compromise also drops this requirement for people who receive an order known as a National Security Letter.

Senator SUNUNU: We struck a provision that required the disclosure of your lawyer's name to the FBI if you were served with a National Security letter.

ABRAMSON: The ACLU is currently challenging the use of National Security letters against a library in Connecticut. The compromise proposal also protects most libraries from these subpoenas.

While these changes have satisfied Senator Sununu and his Republican colleagues, civil liberties groups felt left out in the cold. The ACLU's Lisa Graves said the proposal completely ignores the most important issue to her group.

Ms. LISA GRAVES (Senior Legislative Council, ACLU): We remain very concerned that the provisions continue to allow the government to obtain people's sensitive, personal records without any reason to believe that those individuals have done anything wrong or that they're connected to any suspected terrorists in any way.

ABRAMSON: The ACLU insisted that the FBI be allowed to demand information only about people directly linked to terrorism. The White House insisted that would tie the hands of the investigators, and the compromise gives no new ground on this issue. Graves says she also feels that the ability to challenge the government's gag order isn't all it appears to be.

Ms. GRAVES: It makes clear that you can challenge the gag if you're a business that receives one of these orders, but if the Justice Department basically certifies that telling anyone about the order would interfere with diplomatic relations, that assertion is conclusive. Meaning you have a right to challenge but you'll never win.

ABRAMSON: Civil liberties groups can try to raise a stink about these issues. The question is, who will be listening? Graves says she suspects the debate over the Patriot Act has been drowned out by the uproar over warrantless spying by the National Security Agency. And at least one Democrat has decided it's time to declare victory and go home.

Joining the four Republican Senators who announced the compromise yesterday was Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who's been pretty vocal in his opposition to many patriot powers. Durbin said he in fact had hoped for more than the bill he's decided to endorse.

Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): But if you measure it against the original Patriot Act, as Senator Sununu has said, we've made progress here, significant progress. Does that mean that I will stop asking for changes? No. I'm going to continue to be vigilant, to try to monitor what is being done in the name of the Patriot Act, to make certain that it does not go too far.

ABRAMSON: Other Democrats felt differently. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont said White House naysaying and partisanship have obstructed this from becoming the better bill that it should be and that is deeply regrettable. But Leahy would not say whether he would back another filibuster.

Only Senator Russell Feingold, the lone senator to vote against the original Patriot Act back in 2001, vowed to fight on. But Democrats who try to block passage now will no longer to be able to point to bipartisan concerns about this law.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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