President Bush’s low poll numbers could hamper his effort to persuade Congress to make controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act permanent.
As the two chambers grapple over differences in the reauthorization of the act, political analysts say that Bush may not hold much sway on the specifics of the legislation.
Bush, who won reelection partly because of his anti-terrorism efforts, is now facing some of his lowest poll numbers, with 51 percent disapproving of his handling of the war on terrorism.
In recent weeks, the administration has come under fire for the war on terrorism. Shortly after Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff was indicted in a probe of who leaked classified information about a CIA agent, reports surfaced that the FBI has increasingly relied on so-called national-security letters as a way to demand information on people, whether or not they’re under suspicion, without a judge’s approval.
This news comes as lawmakers are seeking to make changes to the U.S. policy on detainees, changes that the administration opposes.
“A whole host of events have conspired to greatly diminish his ability to negotiate for anything,” said David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University.
Bush’s bargaining position has weakened, and he does not have the same leverage over GOP members as he had in previous years, said Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University and a fellow at the Center for American Progress.
“We are seeing a minirebellion on numerous issues, from the budget to [Hurricane] Katrina to the limit on torture,” Swire said. “The Patriot Act could turn into another minirebellion.
“We have seen leaks of classified data for political gains, and that raises worry about abuse, and it supports stronger checks and balances for the Patriot Act.”
And the clock is ticking. Several provisions of the Patriot Act are scheduled to expire at the end of this year. Lawmakers have not yet met in conference to hash out the differences in the House- and Senate-passed bills, though conferees could meet this week.
“There is growing momentum from the right and the left to reform these powers [in the Patriot Act], and the recent revelation of the widespread use of national-security letters only underscores the concerns that conservatives and libertarians have had,” said Lisa Graves, senior counsel for legislative strategy at the American Civil Liberties Union.
When Congress wrote the Patriot Act four years ago, it placed expiration dates on about 16 provisions.
The Senate version of the Patriot Act reauthorization gives a new four-year sunset to Section 215, also known as the “library records” provision. It can be used to obtain library, medical and other sensitive business records. The Senate bill would require the government to convince a judge that a person is connected to terrorism or espionage before obtaining those records.
The House bill calls for a 10-year sunset, which some critics say is too long to wait for congressional reevaluation of a statute affecting civil liberties.
Another portion of the Patriot Act subject to sunset provisions both in the Senate and the House is Section 206, which relates to expanding the use of roving wiretaps. The Senate again resorted to a four-year sunset on that section, while the House seeks 10 years.
The Senate bill would require the government to identify with “particularity” the person under scrutiny and to provide an explanation of why the FBI tapped the phone of the person under scrutiny. The House version does not have a particularity standard and only requires the agent to notify the judge after the fact when the government changes the location of a tap.
Even though conferees have to iron out the differences in these two sections, the White House is pushing to have them become permanent, without any sunset provisions.
In a statement of administration policy issued in July, the White House said: “The administration believes that the sunset provision contained in Section 3(b) of H.R. 3199 is unnecessary and detrimental and therefore opposed such provision.”
But amid current events, Bush’s push on having those provisions become permanent has weakened.
“I hope that it causes people in Congress to not simply accept at face value the alarmist views of the administration that the sky is going to fall if not every provision is renewed and expanded,” said former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), a conservative who has joined forces with liberal groups such as the ACLU on the Patriot Act. Both Barr and the ACLU support the Senate version of the Patriot Act renewal, suggesting it is the lesser of two evils.
The White House leans toward supporting the House version, according a spokesperson for the House Judiciary Committee.