Senate OKs extension of Patriot Act as race against clock continues

The Senate approved a four-year extension of the Patriot Act 72-23 Thursday with strong bipartisan support after a week of contentious debate. 

The bill is now being rushed across the Capitol to the House where Republican leadership will attempt to pass it and have it approved by the White House before it expires at midnight — an event which some say would cause a dangerous disruption to law enforcement's fight against terrorism.

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The road to passage for the bill in the Senate was a treacherous one as a small but vocal contingent of senators from both parties insisted that the legislation be afforded greater consideration, and that a series of amendments opposed by leadership see a floor vote.

"It took me three days of sitting down here filibustering but I am going to get two amendment votes," Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said on Thursday afternoon shortly after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) signaled an agreement had finally been struck. "I am very happy and pleased that we came together to get these but I wish we would do more. I wish there were a week's worth of debate."

Prior to the passage of the bill, the Senate overwhelmingly voted to table both of Paul's amendments, one of which would have clarified that the authority to obtain information under the Patriot Act does not pertain to firearms records. The other would have limited the federal government's ability to view individuals' bank records.

Initially, Senate leadership refused to give Paul a vote on his amendments. He in turn threatened to cause the law to lapse seven hours past its expiration date by objecting to any abbreviation of Senate rules that would have demanded, in total, 60-hours of debate on the bill.

The debate on the bill was harsh at times, and tempers flared.

"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 angrily from the floor on Wednesday.

Paul swiftly responded to Reid's remarks and seemed stunned at the majority leader's accusation.

"I rise to respond to a scurrilous accusation," Paul said. "I have been accused of wanting terrorists to have weapons to attack America.

"That is offensive," Paul said. "I find it personally insulting and I think it demeans the body. It demeans the Senate body and the American people."

The Patriot Act renewal legislation would extend the ability of U.S. intelligence authorities to conduct roving wiretaps, gain access to business records and survey "lone-wolf" operators, non-U.S citizens believed to be acting alone to commit terrorist acts.

"Today's extension of the Patriot Act means that our intelligence community, military and law enforcement professionals will continue to have the tools they need to safeguard us from future attacks," McConnell said in a statement. "The invaluable terror-fighting tools under the Patriot Act have kept us safe for nearly a decade, and Americans today should be relieved and reassured to know that these programs will continue."