Four years ago, when U.S. Senator Russ Feingold stood alone in the Senate to oppose the Bush administration's Patriot Act, he was portrayed as a political fringe dweller whose determination to defend basic liberties was out of touch with the realities of the post-9/11 era.
This year, as Feingold leads the fight to block a flawed proposal to reauthorize the Patriot Act, he does so as the voice of a national movement that includes conservatives and liberals, Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians and independents, and residents of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. And he has enough Senate allies to speak seriously about launching a filibuster to block the measure.
What has changed since 2001?
For one thing, almost 400 communities across the United States and seven states -- Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana and Vermont -- have passed resolutions condemning the assaults on civil liberties and the rule of law contained in the Patriot Act and calling upon Congress to address those concerns before reauthorizing the measure that was approved with minimal debate in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Rarely in American history has a single law drawn such ideologically, politically and geographically diverse opposition.
The message was heard by the Senate which, during this year's reauthorization debate, addressed many of the most serious civil liberties concerns. The bipartisan reauthorization measure, which added basic privacy protections that had been proposed by Feingold and others, was approved unanimously by the Senate.
Unfortunately, the U.S. House, which under the hard-line partisan leadership of Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, and his lieutenants no longer operates as an independent legislative chamber but instead rubber stamps the requests of the Bush administration, failed to respond to the public outcry. Instead, it produced a reauthorization of the Patriot Act that was actually more draconian in some senses than the original legislation.
That set up what was supposed to be a clash between House and Senate conferees, who were required to reconcile the differing proposals.
But, rather than accept the Senate's balanced bill, the conference committee opted to advance a version of the legislation that, like the House bill, extends most of the Patriot Act permanently while failing to address the flaws that have inspired so much opposition to the law. Of particular concern to civil libertarians is the fact that the conference committee's proposal extends several of the Patriot Act's most controversial provisions by authorizing roving wiretaps and permitting allowing the government to seize the records of libraries, hospitals and businesses in "fishing expedition" searches.
"The conference committee had the opportunity to fix many of the provisions of the Patriot Act to which Americans across the political spectrum have voiced their opposition over the last four years," explained U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, the leading Congressional critic of the Patriot Act. "Unfortunately, they decided not to listen."
Feingold's objections were echoed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that seek to defend Bill of Rights protections. "This sham compromise agreement fails to address the primary substantive concern raised by millions of Americans, as well as civil liberties, privacy and business organizations and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and in both chambers," argued Caroline Fredrickson, the director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office.
The Bill of Rights Defense Committee, which has played a critical role in organizing opposition to the Patriot Act nationwide, is particularly worried by the decision of the conference committee to disregard language that would have protected against the abusive use of so-called "National Security Letters" -- the documents used to federal agents to demand the records of libraries and businesses. Civil libertarians wants Congress to set a baseline standard requiring that there be a connection between records sought and a suspected terrorist or foreign agent.
Without such protections, Feingold says, the conference committee's proposal lacks "adequate safeguards to protect our constitutional freedoms."
As such, the Wisconsin Democrat says, "I will do everything I can, including a filibuster, to stop this Patriot Act conference report." The filibuster threat is a significant one, as the act will expire if it is not reauthorized by the end of the year.
Unlike in 2001, Feingold has Senate allies. On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators joined him in signing a letter that declared, "We believe that this conference report will not be able to get through the Senate, while the Senate bill would easily pass the House if its leadership would bring it to a vote. We call on our House colleagues to reject this conference report, and to take up and pass the Senate compromise bill. We still can - and must - make sure that our laws give law enforcement agents the tools they need while providing safeguards to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans."
That's the balance that Feingold sought to strike in 2001. He's doing so again in 2005. The difference is that, this time, Feingold will not have to stand alone.