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Senate Wrangles Over Patriot Act, Votes to Expand Authority to Spy

By Eric Lichtblau

New York Times -- WASHINGTON

Senate Republicans backed down on Thursday from an effort to make permanent the sweeping antiterrorism powers in a 2001 act, clearing the way for passage of a less divisive measure that would still expand the government’s ability to spy on foreign terrorist suspects in the United States.

In an agreement completed over the last week, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, dropped his effort to extend provisions of the 2001 legislation, whose broad powers to investigate and track terrorist suspects were scheduled to expire in 2005.

As a result, the Senate voted 90-4 to approve a measure expanding the government’s ability to use secret surveillance tools against terrorist suspects who are not thought to be members of known terrorist groups.

Under current law, federal officials must establish a link to a foreign terrorist group in order to secure or request a secret warrant.

The day’s developments represented a major test of the balancing act between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberties, and the result delivered a mixed verdict as many lawmakers expressed reservations about giving law enforcement officials too much power to fight terrorism.

“There’s a delicate balance between liberty and security,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who was one of the authors of the so-called “lone wolf” counterterrorism measure. “It’s a seesaw, and that’s the debate that we’re seeing now in Congress.”

The overwhelming passage of the measure masked intense behind-the-scenes maneuverings in recent weeks over the powers that the federal government had been given to fight terrorism.

Hatch led a push beginning last month to attach to the bill an amendment that would have repealed time restrictions built into the 2001 measure, called the Patriot Act.

Hatch adopted this tactic because he was said to believe that some Democrats on the Judiciary Committee were seeking to water down the bill by attaching amendments that would impose tougher legal standards and greater reporting requirements on law enforcement officials in their use of their new counterterrorism powers. Many Democrats have complained in recent months that the Justice Department has kept them in the dark about its counterterrorism activities since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Hatch’s effort to make the act permanent set off immediate criticism from civil liberties groups and lawmakers, including some Republicans, who said Congress needed more time to scrutinize how the act was working -- and whether law enforcement officials were abusing it. Some of the Republican opposition has come from lawmakers concerned about reach of “big government.”

Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said that extending the life of the Patriot Act “will happen over his dead body.”

As part of a tentative deal reached last week and completed over the last several days, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee agreed not to seek a repeal of the act’s sunset provisions at Thursday’s vote on the terrorism bill if Democrats pulled some of their own amendments that the Republicans considered objectionable.