WASHINGTON – Bitterly divided over the Patriot Act and oil drilling in Alaska, senators hunkered down Monday for a dramatic and politically risky test of wills that threatened to delay funds for U.S. troops and hurricane relief.
Facing year-end deadlines, Democrats, joined by a handful of Republicans, were blocking a vote to renew the Patriot Act, the post-Sept. 11 law that expanded the government’s anti-terrorism police powers. They also were threatening to delay final action on a $453.5 billion defense-spending bill because Republicans added a last-minute provision that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration.
The Democrat-led coalition faced down Republicans and the White House in a double-track game of chicken as both sides vowed to stand their ground.
The anti-terrorism law is scheduled to expire Dec. 31. Funding for the Pentagon also expires on New Year’s Eve under a stopgap bill that extended current levels of spending.
Republicans were counting on the deadlines to pressure Democrats to abandon their obstruction. President Bush weighed in Monday, singling out Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Democratic senators from California and New York, and calling on them to explain their decision to block a vote on the Patriot Act.
“The senators who are filibustering the Patriot Act must stop their delaying tactics, and the Senate must vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act,” Bush said in a morning news conference. “In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment.”
Democratic and Republican critics of the bill, however, said they didn’t intend to kill the law. They said they wanted only to strengthen civil liberties protections that had been in a Senate version of the legislation but were removed during negotiations with the House of Representatives.
The dispute centered on terms covering federal agents’ ability to obtain a range of private data, from medical records to library lending lists. The bill would allow the government to examine such records after a court finds that they are relevant to an anti-terrorism investigation, a much lower standard than the requirement in criminal investigations.
The legislation also would prohibit the recipients of requests for such information from discussing the records search with anyone but a lawyer, a restriction that critics say amounts to an unconstitutional “gag order.” Democrats have asked to modify the legislation so that the restriction could be challenged in court more easily.
Four Senate Republicans joined 42 Democrats last week to block a vote on the bill, and they asked for a three-month extension of the law while the legislation was put to further negotiations. Bush, however, said he wouldn’t sign such a short-term extension, and Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., quashed the request. A new attempt Monday for an extension also was rejected.
“Our intent is not to kill the Patriot Act, and it never has been,” said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, one of the four Republicans who are helping to block the bill.
Bush’s admission over the weekend that he authorized secret wiretaps of U.S. residents without court approval, which the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires, has helped to fuel the debate. Though the wiretaps are unrelated to the Patriot Act, critics say the president’s actions underscored the need for greater civil liberties protections.
“When they say they don’t trust this president to strike the right balance between security and liberty, there’s now a backdrop that makes that much more credible,” said Will Marshall, a centrist Democratic strategist.
The delaying tactic may be riskier for Democrats on the defense-spending bill. In addition to providing Pentagon funding, the legislation contains $29 billion to help rebuild Gulf Coast states and nearly $4 billion for avian flu preparation.
It was the addition of an oil-drilling provision for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that prompted threats from Reid to block the bill.
The drilling language was added over the weekend, after it became apparent to Republican leaders that ANWR exploration wouldn’t pass the House as part of a budget-cutting bill. A majority of senators have supported the drilling in the past, but Reid is trying to keep Democrats together on a move to rule that the ANWR language isn’t relevant to the defense bill. That could help critics form a majority that would be strong enough to remove the provision from the bill.
Without such a majority, Democrats may have to resort to a filibuster, but that would block a vote on the entire defense-spending bill.
“It’s harder to justify a vote against the kind of resources that our troops need,” Marshall said.
“The president is weaker and Republicans are weaker,” said independent political analyst Stu Rothenberg, the author of a Washington political newsletter. “Still, it’s always dangerous for Democrats to appear to be less than enthusiastic about spending money on defense.”