The Patriot Act needs to be reformed so that it can serve as a legitimate national security tool without undermining basic liberties. That’s the view of legal scholars, civil libertarians on the right and the left of the political spectrum, and the seven state legislatures and 395 local governments that have passed anti-Patriot Act resolutions promoted by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.
For a time, it also seemed to be the view of a remarkable bipartisan coalition of U.S. Senators that in December blocked the Bush-Cheney administration’s scheme to reauthorize the act without significant changes.
Unfortunately, the coalition fell apart when, under pressure from the White House, Republican senators backed away from the fight and, essentially, gave the administration what it wanted. Then, in another sign that America has no opposition party, senior Democrats joined with the Republicans to accept the White House-backed plan.
But one senator refused to go along with a reauthorization proposal that satisfies the president, but that does not pass Constitutional muster.
Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, who cast the sole vote against the Patriot Act when it was first passed in 2001, attempted to mount a lonely filibuster against reauthorization of the Patriot Act in a form that he said contained only "fig leaf" improvements. With little or no support from his fellow Democrats, Feingold was forced to abandon the delaying tactic late Wednesday, as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, prepared to force procedural votes on the measure as early as Thursday.
But, unlike the leaders of his own Democratic caucus, Feingold refused to embrace the deal that the White House has forced on the Senate. And the Wisconsin senator promised that he would use every tool available to him to try and amend the legislation before it comes up for final approval later this month.
"The White House would agree to only a few minor changes to the same Patriot Act conference report that could not get through the Senate back in December. These changes do not address the major problems with the Patriot Act that a bipartisan coalition has been trying to fix for the past several years," the senator said. "They are, quite frankly a fig leaf to allow those who were fighting hard to improve the Act to now step down, claim victory, and move on. What a hollow victory that would be, and what a complete reversal of the strong bipartisan consensus that we saw in this body just a couple months ago."
Blunt as ever, Feingold declared that: "What we are seeing is quite simply a capitulation to the intransigent and misleading rhetoric of a White House that sees any effort to protect civil liberties as a sign of weakness. Protecting American values is not weakness. Standing on principle is not weakness. And committing to fighting terrorism aggressively without compromising the rights and freedoms this country was founded upon – that’s not weakness either."