WASHINGTON — Senators showed overwhelming support Thursday to extend three terrorism-fighting tools for law enforcement beyond their midnight expiration.
Senators voted 79-18 to move toward a final vote on the legislation, with passage expected later Thursday. The measure also needs House approval before it can go to the White House.
The Senate's top Republican. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said he was certain that Congress would not let the tools, which include two from the 2001 USA Patriot Act, lapse.
"I have no doubt that the four-year Patriot Act extension that members of both parties will agree to today will safeguard us from future attacks," he said.
President Barack Obama is in Europe until Saturday evening, so Congress may have to agree on a short-term extension until he returns and can sign the bill.
One of the tools lets law enforcement officials set roving wiretaps to monitor multiple communications devices. A second tool allows officials to get court-approved access to business records and other documents, including library check-outs, that might be relevant to a terrorist threat.
The third one permits surveillance of non-American "lone wolf" suspects not specifically tied to terrorist groups.
The Senate vote to move ahead followed several days of resistance from a GOP freshman, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
The progress came after several days of impasse and resulted in part from prodding by intelligence officials who warned of the consequences of disrupting surveillance operations.
"Should the authority to use these critical tools expire, our nation's intelligence and law enforcement professionals will have less capability than they have today to detect terrorist plots," James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, wrote congressional leaders.
The Patriot Act was passed soon after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and almost all of it is permanent law. But the provisions on roving wiretaps and access to business documents had expiration dates because of concerns they overstepped boundaries on civil liberties. Those two and the "lone wolf" measure, which was part of a 2004 intelligence law, have needed numerous temporary extensions as lawmakers argued over how best to ensure that they were not abusing individual rights.
The extension debate this time led to a showdown between the Senate's most powerful member, Majority Leader Harry Reid, and a first-term lawmaker.
Paul, a libertarian and tea party favorite, opposes the Patriot Act and objects to renewal of the expiring provisions on the grounds that they violate constitutional rights to privacy. Negotiations with Reid failed to meet Paul's demands that he be able to offer amendments to the legislation, including one amendment that would have excluded some gun records from Patriot Act investigations.
An exasperated Reid used procedural maneuvers to cut off debate. Paul refused to allow the time for a final vote to be moved up.
In the end, Reid agreed to give Paul votes on two amendments in exchange for letting the bill move forward.
Paul had support from several Democrats who want to see more congressional oversight of how the Patriot Act operations are carried out.
A proposed amendment that the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., sponsored with Paul would have required audits on the use of surveillance authorities and required the government to provide more proof of a link to a foreign group or power to obtain sensitive library circulation records and bookseller records.
But with the expiration date approaching and little likelihood of a compromise with the House, the Democrats acceded to letting the bill move forward. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said he was not happy they weren't able to deal with the bill differently, but allowing the provisions to lapse was "unacceptable."1 comment on this story
Damage from a short-term lapse would probably be minimal. The government would be unable to get court warrants for new investigations but could still get court authority in the case of foreign intelligence investigations that were already under way before the provisions expired.
Todd Hinnen, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's national security division, said at a congressional hearing in March that the government seeks warrants for business records fewer than 40 times a year and that between 2001 and 2010, it sought roving wiretap authority in about 20 cases a year. He said the government has yet to use its lone wolf authority.
Associated Press writer Pete Yost contributed to this report.