A display of Senate courage

The Senate’s failure last week to invoke cloture in the debate over reauthorization of the so-called Patriot Act was described as the result of an essentially party-line vote, but it included three Republican senators who have long been fighting for greater reforms and one who seems to have been convinced to join them.

The Senate’s failure last week to invoke cloture in the debate over reauthorization of the so-called Patriot Act was described as the result of an essentially party-line vote, but it included three Republican senators who have long been fighting for greater reforms and one who seems to have been convinced to join them.

The three were, of course, Larry Craig of Idaho, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John Sununu of New Hampshire. The fourth was Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Majority Leader Bill Frist, a supporter of the act, joined them, but only to facilitate bringing the question before the Senate again if he rounds up the votes to pass it.

Since the vote, administration spokesmen and others have characterized their votes Friday and the questions they have raised over the course of the last couple of years as “wrongheaded” or based on myth rather than reality. Indeed, one could get the impression from their critics that none of the four has bothered to read the legislation that was negotiated by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) or has much real concern about the security of the American homeland or those of us who live here.

They have in short been characterized as either sloppy ignoramuses or irresponsible know-nothings who have somehow lost sight of their obligations as members of the Senate. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Craig and Sununu were original sponsors of what they called the SAFE Act, which included modest “fixes” designed to protect the civil liberties of their fellow citizens without in any way crippling or even hindering the government’s legitimate desire to ferret out terrorists before they can act against us. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Specter himself signed on as a co-sponsor shortly after the bill was introduced and apparently sought many of the provisions in it during his negotiations with Sensenbrenner.

Specter didn’t come back with enough to satisfy those who shared his concerns, but he did manage to back the House down on a couple of things. The House conferees defying instructions from the House membership insisted on 10-year “sunsets” on the most controversial sections of the legislation, but Specter managed to get them to accede to the Senate demand that the 10 years be reduced to four so that Congress would be able once again to consider whether to continue, expand or reduce the extraordinary investigative powers granted the government after Sept. 11. That alone was a major victory for which Specter deserves great credit, but Craig and his fellow Republican critics of overreaching wanted more. Specter opposed last week’s filibuster on the grounds that he had negotiated everything he could and going back for more just wouldn’t work.

He may have been right before the revelations about the far more widespread use of what are known as national-security letters by the FBI than anyone had suspected (as many as 30,000 having been issued in just one year according to some reports) and the New York Times story revealing that the president had directed the National Security Agency to gather information on U.S. citizens, in direct violation of existing law, but members of both parties last week began to express concerns about what seems to be going on in the name of fighting terrorism. The result was a failure to invoke cloture and a standoff that could conceivably result in the expiration of the affected sections of the law.

That is unlikely to happen, as time pressures have a way of forcing people to make decisions they might not otherwise make and no one wants the Patriot Act to be weakened in any substantive way. The most important parts of the act, which tore down the internally constructed “walls” against information sharing among intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, have unanimous or near unanimous support in Congress, as does 98 percent of the rest of the act.

Whatever deal is finally struck will allow the fight against terrorism to continue but will at the same time force government to pay greater attention to the civil liberties of innocent Americans than might otherwise be the case. That alone makes the stance taken by those Senate Republicans with the courage to ask hard but knowledgeable questions of their colleagues and a Republican administration all the more admirable.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).