Senate Approves Patriot Act Changes

The House is expected to take up the measure next week. The anti-terrorism law has been extended twice and will expire March 10.

The new limits, which the Senate passed 95-4, deal with the government’s ability to access records in terrorism investigations by allowing court challenges to some demands, according to the Associated Press.

Democratic Sens. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who have been the bill’s most vocal opponents, voted “no,” along with Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Jim Jeffords, I-Vt.

Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, did not vote.

The Senate also voted 84-15 to end a filibuster aimed at stalling a House-Senate compromise that would renew 16 major provisions of the act.

Last fall, Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans filibustered the bill, forcing the temporary extensions.

There are deep divisions on both sides of the aisle over whether the Patriot Act infringes on civil liberties by allowing warrentless wiretaps and National Security Letters, which allow federal agents unprecedented access to personal documents.

“No one has the right to turn this body into a rubber stamp,” said Feingold. “The White House played hardball and the decision was made by some to capitulate.”

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania urged colleagues to pass the bill despite misgivings about privacy protections, promising to hold hearings on more restrictions on government authorities.

“This issue is not concluded” he said.

Specter’s version of the legislation would require tougher standards for authorities seeking warrantless wiretaps and would require National Security Letters to expire after four years.

Supporters of the bill insisted preventing terrorist attacks at home should be the first priority.

“Civil liberties do not mean much when you are dead,” Kentucky Republican Sen. Jim Bunning said.