The Senate pushed the Patriot Act a step closer to renewal Thursday, overwhelmingly rejecting an effort to block it.
Passage is expected next month for extending the law that was passed weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as a weapon to help the government track terror suspects.
The 96-3 vote Thursday was no surprise to Sen. Russell Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who was the lone senator to oppose the law four and a half years ago and is the chief obstacle to extending 16 provisions now due to expire March 10.
Feingold, who is considering seeking his party's presidential nomination, plans to make the Senate spend several more days on the bill.
He complained that Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., had used procedural maneuvers to prevent him from trying to add more protections for people investigated by the government.
"We still have not addressed some of the most significant problems with the Patriot Act," Feingold said.
At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan urged the Senate to keep up the momentum on the legislation, which he called "a good faith effort" to improve the law.
"Yet there are still some Senate Democrats that want to continue to engage in obstructionist tactics and prevent this vital legislation from being reauthorized," McClellan said. "We hope the Senate will move ahead quickly and reject the continued obstructionist efforts."
Only Sens. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., and Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., supported Feingold on Thursday's vote to stop what Frist had characterized as a filibuster preventing the Senate from acting on the legislation. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., did not vote.
The changes Feingold was seeking included an amendment that would set a four-year expiration date on Patriot Act provisions regarding National Security Letters — demands made to banks, libraries, Internet providers and others without warrants — for records of their customers or clients.
Another amendment would require the government to notify the subject of a secret search within seven days or obtain court permission to maintain the secrecy for a longer period.
Feingold said the new deal some Senate Republicans brokered with the White House on civil liberties protections would "still allow government fishing expeditions."
Other senators also had advocated more curbs on the government's power to investigate people. But with the law already extended temporarily twice since December and a midterm election approaching, most of those who share Feingold's concerns are willing to accept the compromise struck last week with the White House.
Virtually all of the 45 senators who had stood with Feingold last year to kill a House-Senate agreement abandoned the effort this month after two of them, Republican Sens. John Sununu of New Hampshire and Larry Craig of Idaho, struck a deal with the White House to add more privacy protections.
"Compromise and consensus require concessions and flexibility," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who sided with Feingold in December but who will now vote for the bill. "It is the responsibility of the Congress to 'provide for the common defense,' and I believe we live up to that duty in this bill."
Sixty votes were required to overcome Feingold's filibuster.
Supporters expected the Senate to pass the bill March 1 and the House to quickly add its approval.
Under the deal, recipients of court-approved subpoenas for information in terrorist investigations would have the right to challenge a requirement that they refrain from telling anyone. The bill would also remove a requirement that an individual provide the FBI with the name of an attorney consulted about a National Security Letter. A third change, supporters say, makes clear that most libraries are not subject to National Security Letter demands for information about suspected terrorists.
Feingold, however, characterized the deal as making only one modest improvement over the defeated House-Senate compromise and current law: judicial review of "gag orders" issued with court-ordered subpoenas for information.