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House Debates Patriot Act

Just hours after explosions created fresh terrorist concerns in London on Thursday, the House debated an extension of the USA Patriot Act, the premier American anti-terrorism tool.

The bill (H.R. 3199) called for making permanent 14 of 16 provisions of the original law, passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and scheduled to expire at the end of this year. It also gave a 10-year extension to two provisions — one allowing roving wiretaps and another allowing searches of library and medical records — that triggered passionate arguments between Democrats and Republicans.

"This is the single most important vote that Congress will cast to keep America safe during 2005," Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said during a news conference to preview the debate.

The Patriot Act moved forward in the Senate as well, as the Judiciary Committee unanimously approved changes Thursday and sent the measure to the floor for a vote. The changes, agreed to after all-night negotiations, include a provision that requires law enforcement to report within seven days of a search warrant being granted whether there was enough evidence to justify the search.

The panel also deleted a provision requiring law enforcement agencies to report on wiretaps in a way they found onerous.

A competing bill also has been approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which would give the FBI expanded powers to subpoena records without the approval of a judge or grand jury. That ensures further Senate talks on the terrorism-fighting measure.

While civil libertarians have expressed concern about the original law, passed by Congress just 45 days after the Sept. 11 attacks, congressional and Justice Department advocates argue it has accelerated the pursuit and prosecution of suspected terrorists by breaking down barriers between law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., opening the debate, labeled the measure to extend the law a "collaborative effort to fine-tune our law enforcement needs."

The Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, told C-Span, "I know of nobody who wants to kill the Patriot Act," but he said critics want to avoid excessive secrecy, curb racial profiling and ensure all of its elements are constitutional.

In particular, he said he opposed extending the existing four-year sunset clauses to 10 years for the two provisions in question, declaring, "Ten years is, in effect, no sunset at all."

Conyers took particular aim at Section 215, which allows searches of library and medical records if approved by a judge, saying, "I do not think we can go into this without allowing people to know that is being done."

Overall, the daylong debate was to include discussion of 20 amendments, but not one by Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that curbed library and bookstore searches and which received initial approval by the House in June. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, blasted GOP leaders, saying, "Why are you afraid to have another vote? Are you afraid you can't get your members to change their mind? Are you afraid of the democratic process in this, the people's house?"

House leaders sent an e-mail to their members urging them to protest by opposing a rule outlining the terms of the remainder of the day's debate.

The House undertook the debate as television screens around the Capitol showed images of London, where authorities were investigating small explosions at three Underground stations and a double-decker bus. The reports came two weeks to the day after larger London blasts that killed 56, including four suicide bombers.