Congress gave final approval Thursday to a temporary extension of parts of the Patriot Act, a step that merely postpones a burgeoning political debate over the controversial anti-terrorism law and its implications for civil liberties in the United States.
President Obama is expected to sign the legislation, forming an unusual coalition with Republican leaders to prevent three key surveillance provisions favored by intelligence officials from expiring at the end of the month.
But an equally unusual coalition opposes the extension. It's composed of congressional Democrats and conservatives -- veteran Republicans as well as new lawmakers who won with support from the "tea party" movement. They dislike the expanded surveillance powers the law provides to government agents.
The three-month extension gives Republican leaders and administration officials time to forge a new political strategy and allows opponents room to propose changes before the measures expire again this spring.
"We cannot afford to leave our intelligence officials without the tools they need to keep America safe," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
But civil liberties advocates said the provisions lacked proper privacy safeguards. Foreshadowing the coming debate, Republicans said they wanted to make the law permanent, while civil liberties groups will press for continued expiration dates to ensure congressional oversight.
"There's going to be a tension between those who want to put some very modest checks and balances in the law and those who might use this as an opportunity to seek more spying authority," said Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.
The political obstacles facing the law, enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, were not obvious until last week, when a vote in the Republican-led House that had been considered routine unexpectedly failed, exposing a substantial well of opposition to the act's intent and reach.
The vote showcased a surprising side effect of the political rise of the tea party: Conservatives chose to ally with liberal Democrats on privacy and civil liberties issues, forming a new congressional voting bloc.
Although the extension passed Thursday, the 279-143 vote again showcased the liberal-conservative alliance. "Intrusive provisions passed," tweeted Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. "Hope House GOP will join us in fixing this flawed law."
The expiring provisions authorize federal officials to use so-called roving wiretaps to track unidentified suspects as they move from place to place and device to device; to obtain library records and other personal information; and to follow foreigners who have no known terrorism connections. All such surveillance activities require court orders.
The Justice Department called the provisions essential and urged Congress not to let them expire, as would have happened at the end of the month had Congress not acted.
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned in a letter to Congress last month that short-term extensions "increase the uncertainties borne by our intelligence and law enforcement agencies in carrying out their missions."
With the 2012 presidential election in sight, Democrats sought to avoid interjecting the national security issue squarely into the emerging campaign as Obama seeks a second term.
House Republican leaders initially tried to extend the bill through Dec. 8, a prospect rejected by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. His bill would extend the provisions through 2013, as the White House prefers.
The impasse was settled with Senate and House approval this week of the extension through May 27.
House GOP leaders want administration officials to come to Capitol Hill to make the case for renewing the law, putting the onus on the White House to build support for provisions that Obama's liberal base has long rejected as an intrusive overreach of government power.
House Republican leaders cleared the judiciary panel's schedule to conduct far-reaching hearings next month. And amid tea party opposition to the law, freshman Republicans have been invited to House staff briefings to provide another perspective.
Civil libertarians will consider it a victory if they are able to require additional oversight and fend off attempts to further enhance government surveillance authority.
As the bill was being voted on Thursday, a House subcommittee reviewed concerns from law enforcement that the legal authority to conduct surveillance under other laws may need to be updated to keep pace with social networking sites and emerging telecommunications technologies.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service