WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to push through a vote on Tuesday evening to reauthorize the most contested provisions of the Patriot Act until December, a nine-month extension of the broad surveillance law instead of the two-year extension supported by the White House.
Introduced by Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the reauthorization bill would extend three expiring provisions of the Patriot Act until December, allowing House Republicans time to hold hearings on the utility of longer-term extensions. The White House issued a statement Tuesday supporting temporary reauthorization as a stopgap measure, though the statement noted, "The administration would strongly prefer enactment of reauthorizing legislation that would extend these authorities until December 2013."
A longer-term reauthorization was introduced last month in the Senate by the upper chamber's Judiciary Committee chairman, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said he supports a long-term extension of the law. "We need the PATRIOT Act to prevent attacks and apprehend terrorists," Smith said in a Jan. 26 statement. "This short-term extension is a step toward the long-term reauthorization of important and necessary national security provisions."
Tea Party-minded Republicans are skeptical, however, and could cause trouble for Republican leaders seeking a long-term extension.
"There need to be sunsets on the bill after that in order to have adequate accountability and oversight," Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) told the Los Angeles Times. "Until sunsets come up, it is often difficult to get the answers we need to do necessary oversight to avoid abuses."
Enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act grants the government wider authority to conduct surveillance on terrorism suspects, but has been abused by the nation's law-enforcement officials, who often use their expanded powers for cases without a national-security component.
Three of the law's more contentious provisions are set to expire on Feb. 28 if Congress does not act. One, the "lone wolf" provision, enables the government to conduct surveillance on foreign terrorism suspects even if they do not appear to have ties to known groups. Another, often called the library provision, allows for court-approved access to a wide swath of a suspect's personal information, including library records. The third allows, given a judge's approval, for roving wiretaps on terrorism suspects as they change phones or locations.
Civil-liberties advocates had hoped their unlikely allies within the Tea Party movement would be able to push GOP leadership toward reform or sunset for the Patriot Act. But despite some opposition from the Tea Party, they say, House Republican leaders are beginning to talk about creating a permanent law next year that would similarly broaden the U.S. government's surveillance powers at home and abroad without the need for future reauthorization.
"We believe the Patriot Act is unconstitutional, so the shorter that lies in effect, the better," Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Huffington Post. "That being said, if this is just to give the House more time to make the case that the Patriot Act should be permanent, that's another story."
The longer-term Senate reauthorization bill would change the library provision to limit the government's access to the personal information of U.S. citizens.
The longer reauthorization period notwithstanding, the ACLU believes Leahy's bill has some "important oversight and accountability mechanisms" that should be included in House bills. "It's disappointing that even those modest changes are not being considered on the House floor," Richardson said. "We wanted to see a bill that would limit the Patriot Act to spying on terrorists, and there are no bills currently introduced that would do that."