WASHINGTON — Freshman Republican Randy Hultgren had no problem voting against extending the Patriot Act in February. But the death of Osama bin Laden, just weeks before part of the terrorist-fighting law expires, raises new questions for the Illinois congressman.
"It hasn't changed my mind, not yet," Hultgren said this week. "I want to see that we're doing it in a careful way, that we're seeing results from it."
There's no indication that the mission to take out bin Laden relied on the Patriot Act, which was designed after the Sept. 11 attacks to find terrorists inside the U.S. But the afterglow of the operation's success shined new light on the nature of the terrorist threat nearly a decade after the attacks bin Laden inspired.
Interviews with House and Senate experts on the law, from both parties, indicate this week's developments may have marginalized any effort to tighten the Patriot Act's protections and perhaps scuttled Senate plans to hold a full week of debate on the bill.
From its inception, the law's increased surveillance powers have been criticized by both liberals and conservatives as infringements on free speech rights and protections against unwarranted searches and seizures.
Some Patriot Act opponents suggest that bin Laden's demise should prompt Congress to reconsider the law, written when the terrorist leader was at the peak of his power. But the act's supporters warn that al-Qaida splinter groups, scattered from Pakistan to the United States and beyond, may try to retaliate.
"Now more than ever, we need access to the crucial authorities in the Patriot Act," Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
If bin Laden's death has any impact on the law's fate, "I hope...it'll be in the direction of extending the current law," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. "Most of us believe it's been an effective tool in the war on terror."
The provisions that expire May 27 allow the government to use roving wiretaps on multiple electronic devices and across multiple carriers and get court-approved access to business records relevant to terrorist investigations. The third, a "lone wolf" provision that was part of a 2004 law, permits secret intelligence surveillance of non-U.S. individuals without having to show a connection between the target and a specific terrorist group.
The Senate Judiciary Committee in March approved a bill that would extend the provisions until 2013, tighten its civil liberties protections and increase oversight. But there's evidence that bin Laden's death may have marginalized any such effort to do more than extend the law, as is. A Senate official not authorized to speak for the record said it wasn't clear that there would be a full week of floor debate on the Patriot Act as Majority Leader Harry Reid had indicated.
The law's fate, for now, resides in the Republican-controlled House and the odd pairing of GOP libertarians and Democratic liberals who have long viewed the Patriot Act as an oppressive overreach.
The new Republican majority in February underestimated the mistrust of the Patriot Act and tried to renew it for 10 months under rules that required a two-thirds supermajority. It failed. Instead, the Senate proposed a three-month extension, and House GOP leaders succeeded in passing it with a simple majority, 279-143.
Of the 'no' votes against the three-month extension, 26 came from Republicans. GOP leaders now are looking to a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee next Wednesday to test whether a straight extension, or one with changes, could draw votes from Democrats, too.
That has left the Senate's Patriot Act experts cooling their heels as they wait for the House to write a bill that might pass. On ice is a bill written by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Approved by his committee in March with bipartisan support, it would impose tighter standards on the government's access to library and other records and require more oversight of agencies that operate under the law.
Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has called for a clean extension through 2013. Several Republicans have proposed just making the expiring provisions permanent.
But as the magnitude of the bin Laden operation sank in, questions arose in the Senate as well as the House.
Freshman Sen. Mike Lee, the Utah Republican whose tea party backing helped him defeat incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett in a primary, was the sole Republican to vote for Leahy's bill to tighten the Patriot Act's civil liberties protections and beef up its oversight requirements.
But this week, Lee couldn't say whether he'd vote for it on the floor. He also did not rule out voting for a straight extension.
Leahy's bill "would do a better job of protecting civil liberties and privacy than current law," Lee said in a statement. But, he said, "I will need to see how the final reform package shapes up."
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