U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, who four years ago stood alone in the Senate to defend the Bill of Rights, finished this year by scoring a dramatic win in his fight to preserve civil liberties.
The Senate’s decision to block a Bush administration push for long-term reauthorization of the Patriot Act — which would have enshrined in law for years, and in some cases permanently, assaults on basic rights contained in the measure — came after Feingold threatened a filibuster and then organized a bipartisan coalition of senators to back him up.
The fight grew increasingly intense last week, after Senate Republican leaders fell seven votes short of the total they needed to thwart a filibuster.
As the December 31 deadline for reauthorization of the act approached. Feingold and his allies offered to accept a short-term extension, so that the Patriot Act could remain in force while senators of both parties address Constitutional concerns.
But President Bush was not in the mood to compromise.
To the very end, the president — doing his best King George immitation — attacked Democratic and Republican senators for seeking to reform the act, which was hastily approved after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Dismissing attempts to reconcile the need for security with the requirements of the Constitution, Bush attacked the Senate’s refusal to reauthorize the act in the form he demanded as “inexcusable” and said that Feingold and his allies were endangering America.
“The senators who are filibustering the Patriot Act must stop their delaying tactics, and the Senate must vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act. In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment,” grumbled Bush in one of a series of public rejections of any talk of a temporary renewal.
But, for all his bluster, Bush had to back down.
The Senate deal that ended the filibuster threat extends the act only for six months and provides critics with clear openings to debate contentious provisions, particularly those that permit the FBI to conduct “sneak-and-peak” searches of private homes and businesses, to wiretap telephones and examine of emails, and to obtain secret warrants for library, medical, business and personal records of Americans who are not suspected of committing crimes. (On Thursday, the House voted for an even shorter extension of one month, a move Feingold applauded. The two chambers must now reconcile their different measures before the end of the year.)
The opportunity that has now been created to debate components of the act — rather than merely pass the law in its entirety — is what Feingold has been demanding since 2001, when he cast the sole Senate vote against enactment of the Patriot Act. And so it came as no great surprise that the senator was celebrating a win Wednesday — not just for his own political crusade of the past four years, but for the Constitution that he and his fellow senators have sworn to uphold.
“Today is a victory for the American people and the bipartisan group of Senators who have been fighting against efforts to extend the Patriot Act permanently without protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens,” Feingold announced Wednesday evening, after the Senate Republican leadership abandoned Bush’s line.”I am pleased that the Republican leadership backed down from their irresponsible threat to let the Patriot Act expire and agreed to a six-month extension of the provisions that would have sunset at the end of this year,” the senator said. “This will allow more time to finally agree on a bill that protects our rights and freedoms while preserving important tools for fighting terrorism. Those of us who stood up to demand modest and reasonable protections of our liberties never wanted to stop Patriot Act reauthorization. We just want to get it right this time around.”
Feingold also took an appropriate swipe at Bush and his allies for creating a false crisis as the deadline for reauthorization approached.
“We could have avoided these last-minute negotiations if the House had just adopted the Senate version of the Patriot Act that passed unanimously earlier this year,” explained the Democrat. “As we move forward, I hope that the Republican leadership in the Senate and the administration will continue down the path they started on tonight so that we don’t find ourselves in this same situation six months from now. One thing is clear – what happened in the Senate over the past few weeks shows that (long-term reauthorization of the Patriot Act in the version favored by Bush) is dead.”
And the Bill of Rights is alive and kicking.