Lawmakers race the clock to extend surveillance provisions
With less than three weeks to go and a congressional recess looming, key lawmakers and aides have been scrambling to find a legislative solution to prevent government surveillance and intelligence-gathering powers from expiring at the end of the month.
With national security shaping up to be a major issue this election cycle, Democrats are under intense pressure to reauthorize three expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act.
As of late Friday, Senate Democratic leaders were moving toward including a one-year extension of the provisions in their jobs bill, which was expected to be introduced this week.
The provisions set to expire give the government the ability to use roving wiretaps to monitor the communications of suspects; get special court orders forcing businesses to turn over evidence, and conduct surveillance on a so-called "lone wolf," or somebody who is not knowingly associated with terrorists.
But questions remained whether Democratic leaders would do a clean reauthorization of the provisions or try to make substantive changes to them. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., declined to comment Friday, while aides for other key lawmakers expressed frustration and confusion over the unresolved issue.
"It's hard to know what the starting point is until you figure out who's amenable to what," one aide said. "Leadership is still trying to figure out how they can get this done."
But if Democrats try to make substantive changes to the PATRIOT Act in the jobs bill, Republicans said it would result in open warfare.
Indeed, Republicans have been champing at the bit to battle Democrats on national security after the Obama administration decided to charge Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in criminal court and read him Miranda rights for attempting to blow up an airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day.
"If they make any attempt to water down our defenses against terrorists, I think they would be making a mistake," said House Judiciary Committee ranking member Lamar Smith, R-Texas.
"They've already got a long list of ways and policies that they've undertaken that endanger Americans, and if they water down the PATRIOT Act, I think that would be close to the last straw in their efforts to weaken our defenses against terrorists," he added.
Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said he believed the election of Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., has altered the political landscape for Democrats in their handling of security issues.
"There's no need to weaken these provisions," Sessions said. "I think the ground has shifted a bit after the Massachusetts vote, and his strong view that we need to strengthen national security."
But Sessions, Smith and other Republicans conceded that they would support adding a short-term, clean reauthorization of the provisions in the jobs bill to give lawmakers more time to work out their differences. They said the reauthorization could be for three or six months.
Both the Senate and House Judiciary committees have passed bills to address the expiring provisions, and both bills would make several changes to the provisions.
The House bill is considered to be the most far-reaching, because it would allow the lone-wolf provision to expire and would place stricter standards on the government's ability to use surveillance and intelligence-gathering powers.
But the Senate Judiciary bill has been endorsed by the Obama administration, meaning it is the most likely version to get through Congress, several aides and national security experts agreed.
In an interview last week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., did not indicate support for inclusion of the PATRIOT Act revisions in the jobs bill. He said his preference would be for the Senate to pass a stand-alone bill his panel approved in October, which reauthorizes the three provisions.
"I wish we could do that," he said.
But many civil liberties and privacy advocates support the House Judiciary bill. They note it would also rein in the ability of the government to use national security letters, which are demands for information without a court order.
"This is a fantastic opportunity to limit [national security letter] authority so it's targeted to actual terrorists," said Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"We did prefer the House bill, particularly because it had the fix for the NSLs," she added. "We're waiting to see the final language [from Democratic leaders] before we can provide an analysis to the members and make a vote recommendation."