GOP Senators Make Deal on Patriot Act Renewal
A deal has been reached to extend the USA Patriot Act. A group of Senate Republicans and the White House have agreed on some minor changes to the law that should clear the way to end a bipartisan filibuster in final passage. The bill has been held up over concerns about the protection of civil liberties. NPR's Larry Abramson is with us from the Capitol. Now Larry, first of all, remind us what portions of the Patriot Act were in dispute.
LARRY ABRAMSON reporting: Well there were actually 16 provisions that were set to expire, Michele, at the end of last year. But there were really only two provisions that were particularly controversial. These had to do with Section 215, which allows the FBI to get access to business records including library records, and that's why it became controversial. And then there was also another section that had to do with national security letters. These are subpoenas that the FBI can use in order to get access to information without going through any court. Those were really the main stress points.
NORRIS: And Larry, what were the compromises that they came up with today?
Mr. ABRAMSON: Well they're pretty minor. I have to say, for most people watching them from the outside. But they were hard rung from the White House, which resisted making any more changes. The House version of the bill was much stricter on civil liberties. The Senate's had many more protections on civil liberties. What they've agreed to do, basically, is they have crafted legislation that would allow explicit judicial review of a gag order that is attached to that Section 215 power that I talked about. So in other words, if an internet service provider receives an order from the FBI for information about somebody's surfing habits, right now, under the Patriot Act, they cannot tell anybody about that. This would provide for the opportunity for the internet service provider to challenge the nondisclosure order, the gag order. However they have to wait one year after they receive this order in order to do it. At that point, the investigation is probably over, and so it's not really a security threat.
NORRIS: So would this clear the logjam? What does this mean for this filibuster that had been holding up this legislation?
Mr. ABRAMSON: Right, well this is the key question. There were four Republicans who had joined the largely Democratic filibuster against this law. The four Republicans included, led by John Sununu of New Hampshire, said today that they are onboard now with this changed language. That they will go along with this. However, the Democrats could lead a filibuster, as we know, on their own. All they need are 40 votes in order to keep debating a bill.
NORRIS: And I understand some of, have already threatened to do that.
Mr. ABRAMSON: That's right. Senator Russ Feingold, the one senator who voted against the Patriot Act way back in 2001, says that this is a no go. That this is not enough of a change, it won't protect civil liberties enough. However, Sen. Dick Durbin, who has also been very strongly against the version of the Patriot Act that the White House wanted, was there at the news conference when these changes were announced. And he said he would have preferred the original Senate version, which had more civil liberties protections. But he'll go along and he's going to urge his Democratic colleagues to go along.
What we don't know right now is how many Democratic colleagues are going to go along with him, and whether or not the Democrats will be willing to do this as a partisan issue. Because they've now lost the Republican backers. They can't depict this any longer as a bipartisan concern about the Patriot Act. They will be out there all alone.
NORRIS: And Larry, I just want to be clear on this. Why would the White House agree to these concessions?
Mr. ABRAMSON: Well they need to renew this act, I think. And, you know, they don't want to keep having these extensions. And I think that most civil liberties groups would say this is really no skin off their nose. That these are relatively minor changes. However, I think that the people who went on board, the Republicans who signed on, feel like these are, this is something that they can take back and say that they won some protections. I will say that the civil liberties groups were really mostly concerned with issues that are not addressed here. So I haven't read any of their news releases yet, but I'm sure they're not going to be happy with what they're seeing because they feel that the Patriot Act can still be used to investigate people with no proven link to terrorism.
NORRIS: Thank you Larry.
Mr. ABRAMSON: Thank you.
NORRIS: NPR's Larry Abramson speaking to us from Capitol Hill.
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