Senate split over how to extend the Patriot Act's surveillance authority

Senate Democrats and Republicans are in a three-way split over how to extend the legal authority to conduct surveillance and information-gathering activities under the USA Patriot Act.

Two Democrats and one Republican have each introduced a bill to address the issue. The bills conflict on how long to extend the authorities and how much oversight to include.

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The Senate must decide which approach to take before these authorities expire at the end of February.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was hoping his committee could mark up his bill Thursday. Leahy's bill, the USA Patriot Act Sunset Extension Act, would extend three surveillance authorities until the end of 2013, and provide for increased oversight of U.S. intelligence gathering tools.

Specifically, the bill would allow the U.S. to continue "roving surveillance" of targets, collect business records and other tangible intelligence records, and surveillance of solo operators who are not tied to a specific terrorist group but may pose a threat to the United States.

But new Judiciary ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced a bill Friday that permanently extend these authorities. Grassley, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.),  said temporary extensions and the threat of oversight would hinder U.S. intelligence agents.

"The threat of terrorism isn't going away so we must provide our agents with the tools they need to get the job done," Grassley said. "Given that terrorist threats, including those from self-radicalized individuals, continue to evolve, we must ensure that our law enforcement agents are not burdened with new restrictions on existing authorities."

Thursday, Leahy charged Republicans with politicizing the issue.

"We should not play politics with national security," Leahy said. He added that he has been conducting "aggressive oversight" of USA PATRIOT Act surveillance authorities since the original bill was passed in 2001.

But Leahy is also facing a challenge from within his own party. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has introduced her own bill that would extend the surveillance authorities until 2013, but would do so without the additional oversight language that Leahy prefers.

In Thursday's hearing, Feinstein indicated that there may not be enough time to consider Leahy's reforms.

All three bills have been introduced consecutively: Feinstein's is S. 289, Leahy's is S. 290, and Grassley's is S. 291. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Friday morning objected to the second reading of these bills on the Senate floor, which puts them aside for now and allows for more time to decide how to proceed.


—This post was updated at 11:37 a.m.