Friday, May 27, 2011 | 5:41 a.m.
Congress seems to love brinksmanship this year: it just narrowly avoided letting the Patriot Act lapse.
Thursday night, the Senate voted 72-23 for a four-year extension of the law that’s amped up the government’s surveillance capabilities, allowing authorities to get special court clearance to seize items related to terrorism probes, tap phones and investigate suspicious individuals not necessarily connected to a known terrorist group. The House followed suit soon after, with a vote of 250-153.
The surveillance activities authorized under the Patriot Act have been the subject of scrutiny over concerns about privacy and civil liberties since October 2001, when President George W. Bush signed it into law in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks directed by Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden’s recent death has breathed new urgency into the legislation for many lawmakers, who believe it’s needed to keep every intelligence-gathering tool possible available for use, especially as the government gains new leads from the treasure trove of information recovered from the raid on bid Laden’s compound.
Nevada Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley is one of those lawmakers who’s expressed serious concerns about the application of the Patriot Act in the past.
But she tabled them for the greater purpose, of keeping the U.S. intelligence-gathering community in fighting shape at a critical juncture in the fight against terrorism, she said.
“The Patriot Act provisions we are extending are vital for America’s national security and for the prevention of terrorism,” Berkley said.
“They give law enforcement the authority and tools needed to track suspects and known terrorists in order to better protect our nation against those who seek to do harm to our families, our communities and those serving in our armed forces at home and abroad,” she said.
But, she said, it is important “that this package only extended them for a limited time, maintaining Congressional oversight over how these provisions are applied.”
The process, however, almost ran aground because of a standoff in the Senate between Majority Leader Harry Reid and freshman Republican Sen. Rand Paul.
Paul’s been a dogged yet oddly utilitarian libertarian during his tenure on the national politics stage.
He came to Washington on a wave of Tea Party support but then waived off the notion that he owed much allegiance to the Tea Party.
He won’t support what was the Republican Party’s preferred approach to tackling next year’s budget — the now-defunct one presented by House Rep. Paul Ryan that would have introduced significant changes to Medicare. Instead, he presented one of his own that proposed balancing the budget by folding the Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development.
Paul got into a heated standoff with Reid over the last week, over raising amendments to the bill. Reid was willing to let him do it, but not if the amendments included prohibiting authorities from checking records of gun dealers to see who was purchasing weapons.
“He is fighting for an amendment to protect the right — not of average citizens, but of terrorists — to cover up their gun purchases,” Reid said of Paul’s one-man filibuster, which continued as the clock ticked down to midnight last night.
But Paul was adamant that his fight was a principled one.
“Those who want to destroy our country want to see us dissolve from within. We dissolve from within when we give up our liberties,” Paul said.
“If you think it’s the business of law enforcement, get a warrant,” he said. “You don’t have to give up your liberty to catch our criminals.”
Almost no one was with Paul on this one.
Other senators who hoped to introduce amendments to force the government to abide by new reporting requirements, withdrew them as Thursday wore on. Even the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, tried to get Paul to put aside his reservations about the bill with an admonition that “now is not the time to surrender the tools authorized by this act.”
Reid ended up folding the Patriot Act extension into the shell of the unfinished Small Business Innovation bill to expedite the time until he could force the Senate to take a vote, despite Paul’s objections.
In the end, Paul would lose this particular crusade, but he wouldn’t be the only senator to take a strong stand on principle and vote against the Patriot Act. So did 19 other Democrats and just four other Republicans — including Nevada’s Sen. Dean Heller.
“I’ve opposed the Patriot Act since Day 1 and continue to oppose it,” he said. “I just don’t think that it’s necessary for the government to know your bank accounts, to be able to enter into your home. I guess, philosophically, I just don’t trust the federal government to use this authority correctly.”
Heller was the only member of the Nevada delegation to vote against the Patriot Act extension; Berkley, Republican Rep. Joe Heck, and Reid all supported it.
“Although the PATRIOT Act is not a perfect law, it provides our intelligence and law enforcement communities with crucial tools to keep America safe and thwart terrorism,” Reid said following the vote.