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Leaders Reach Patriot Act Deal

Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks to the press as House Speaker John Boehner (L) watches in April 2011. Civil liberties groups reacted with anger to the news of a four-year extension for the Patriot Act without committee review. (AFP/File/Mandel Ngan)

Top lawmakers in the House and Senate reached a deal to extend the Patriot Act for four years, a week before key provisions were set to expire.

The pieces of the law that allow the federal government to compel businesses to release records, issue roving wiretaps, and monitor so-called “lone wolf” terror suspects were set to run out on May 27. The outline of the deal between Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) still needs to pass both chambers in the next seven days to avoid a lapse in the law.

Reid went to the Senate floor on Thursday afternoon to file cloture on the bill, setting up a vote for Monday night.

“Sens. Reid and McConnell have introduced a clean, four-year extension of the Patriot Act, one of the critical tools the intelligence community has to keep America safe. The Senate will consider this legislation next week,” said Michael Brumas, a McConnell spokesman.

Extending the Bush-era surveillance law has not been a slam dunk for House GOP leaders this year. In fact, Republicans were unable to muster enough votes to fast-track the bill through the House earlier this year because of objections from lawmakers ranging from libertarian-minded conservatives to liberal Democrats. When a 90-day extension passed earlier this year, Republicans needed Democrats to carry it across the finish line.

House Republicans were readying to push through their own, more ambitious, bill this week. They were going to take up Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s (R-Wis.) bill, which extended the business records and roving wiretap provisions for six years, and the “lone wolf” element permanently. Several House Republicans were averse to extending anything permanently, including conservative House Republicans like Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana.

If the bill is amended in either body, its changes will need to be adopted by both chambers. The House is only scheduled to be in session through Thursday and the law expires Friday, making time of the essence.

Before their week-long recess this week, House Republicans had started the hard sell on the Patriot Act. They had a closed briefing with Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller, and heard stern warnings from House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Cailf.) that they should get their questions answered before voting “no.” GOP aides and lawmakers were also saying that the death of Osama bin Laden should give urgency to extending the law, although the Patriot Act deals with domestic surveillance, not foreign.

Another plus for both parties: the four-year compromise places the vote in 2015 — which is not an election year.

Civil liberties groups reacted with anger to the news of a four-year extension for the controversial law without committee review.

“That is how the Patriot Act first came into being 10 years ago—without meaningful debate,” said the Bill of Rights Defense Committee in a statement issued on Thursday night.

“Today, despite the prior approval of the Senate Judiciary Committee of a bill introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to impose some (albeit inadequate) reforms, the congressional leadership is dictating the result of a long overdue policy debate that has never happened.”

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