The Senate voted 72-23 Thursday to extend the government's Patriot Act powers to search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists. The House was expected to quickly approve the legislation for President Barack Obama's signature.
The action comes a month after intelligence and military forces hunted down Osama bin Laden. Facing a midnight deadline when three terror-fighting tools would expire, the Senate struggled to find a way to stage a final vote in the face of continued resistance from a single senator, Republican freshman Rand Paul of Kentucky. Paul's amendment, which would restrict law enforcement from accessing firearm receipts, failed to pass the Senate on Thursday afternoon.
The Senate vote extends two provisions of the 2001 USA Patriot Act, one allowing for roving wiretaps and the other allowing searches of business records in the pursuit of terrorist threats. A third provision gives the government power to watch non-American "lone wolf" suspects with no certain ties to terrorist groups. All three provisions are viewed as valuable tools by law enforcement officials but are opposed by some who say they can lead to privacy right abuses.
The roving wiretaps and access to business records are small parts of the USA Patriot Act that was enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. But unlike most of the act, which is permanent law, those provisions must be periodically renewed because of concerns that they could be used to violate privacy rights. The same applies to the "lone wolf" provision, which was part of a 2004 intelligence act.
Renewal this time was pushed up against the midnight deadline by Paul, who argued that in the rush to meet the terrorist threat in 2001 Congress enacted a Patriot Act that tramples on individual liberties. He had some backing from liberal Democrats and civil liberties groups who have long contended the Patriot Act gives the government authority to spy on innocent citizens.
Paul also proposed an amendment that would restrict national security officials from examining gun dealer records in their efforts to track potential terrorists. Senate Democrats initially refused to consider the amendment, which threatened to let the Patriot Act provisions expire. But Democrats relented Thursday morning and agreed to allow a vote on the measure, in order to expedite passage of the Patriot Act provisions. Paul's amendment failed 85-10.