House to take up Patriot Act extension next week
The House is poised to vote next week on legislation renewing key provisions of the counterterrorism surveillance law known as the Patriot Act that are set to expire this month.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) office announced Friday that the House will consider a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) that would extend three provisions of the law enacted after the 9/11 terror attacks through Dec. 8, 2011.
One of the provisions authorizes the FBI to continue using roving wiretaps on surveillance targets; the second allows the government to access "any tangible items," such as library records, in the course of surveillance; and the third is a "lone wolf" provision of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act that allows for surveillance of targets who are not connected to an identified terrorist group.
All three would expire on Monday, Feb. 28, unless Congress moves to extend them.
Civil liberties advocates have contended that the Patriot Act gives the government too much latitude in conducting surveillance activities, intruding into the lives of private citizens. Proponents of the law argue that it is essential to national security in an era of evolving terrorist threats.
Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper last week wrote a letter to congressional leaders in which they urged for reauthorization of the Patriot Act's three provisions through 2013.
"It is essential that these intelligence tools be reauthorized before they expire, and we are committed to working with Congress to ensure the speedy enactment of legislation to achieve this result," they wrote, according to National Journal.
In Congress, debate over the Patriot Act has often, but not always, been conducted along party lines. Former Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold was one of the measure's strongest critics, but libertarians such as Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) have also firmly opposed it. As the Senate debate unfolds, it will be worth watching whether Paul's son, freshman Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), follows in his father's footsteps.
When it comes to the timing of the vote, Congress faces a tricky situation.
The Sensenbrenner bill is expected to easily pass the Republican-led House next week. The measure would then go on to the Senate, which will be in recess the latter part of next week. The Senate would next be able to take up the bill when it comes back during the week of Feb. 14.
Both chambers are in recess during the week of Feb. 21 for the President's Day holiday, and by the day they come back -- Feb. 28 -- the provisions will have already expired.
That means that if the Senate doesn't act on the House-passed legislation during the week of Feb. 14, the provisions would either expire or both chambers might be forced to call a pro-forma session during their President's Day recess.
All of that is assuming the Senate takes up the House legislation. But the Senate has its own measure - or rather, three measures - all of which vary significantly from the Sensenbrenner bill.
One of the Senate bills, sponsored by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), would permanently reauthorize the entire Patriot Act.
Another, by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), would extend the three provisions until Dec. 31, 2013, and include additional oversight language.
The third bill, by Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would extend the three key provisions until the end of 2013 and would not include the changes proposed by Leahy.
If the Senate decides to proceed on any one of those bills, the measure would have to pass by Feb. 17 in order to make it back to the House before both chambers recess. And even then, that would give the House only a day to consider the measure.
According to a House Judiciary Committee aide, the thinking behind the Sensenbrenner bill is that the extending the three key Patriot Act provisions until Dec. 8, 2011 -- tentatively the last day of the 112th Congress -- would give the House enough time to arrange for hearings on the actual reauthorization of the provisions and get the large number of incoming freshmen up to speed on the specifics of the measure.
| February 4, 2011; 6:30 PM ET
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