Their Own Patriot Act
J. Dionne Jr.
WASHINGTON -- It's
not too much to say that liberty and democracy were triumphant
last week. Remarkably, the willingness of four senators to cross
party lines was the key to this victory.
The good news came
when the U.S. Senate voted to stall the renewal of the Patriot
Act, which granted extraordinary powers to law enforcement in
the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Forty-six senators,
including those four Republicans, refused to shut off debate on
the bill because they believe that some of its provisions go too
far in impinging upon civil liberties.
The rebels are not
opposed to all of the Patriot Act's provisions and acknowledge
that the rise of terrorism requires new approaches to law enforcement.
But they insist on preserving traditional American protections
for individual rights. They think judges should be able to review
the actions of the authorities, they want to avoid police fishing
expeditions, and they want to protect privacy.
One of those rebels
put the case plainly in last week's debate. ``We should not be
afraid of a judicial review or setting the appropriate standards
of evidence,'' this senator declared. ``We need to be mindful
of Ben Franklin's words over 200 years ago: 'Those who would give
up essential liberty in the pursuit of a little temporary security
deserve neither liberty nor security.'''
No, these are not
the words of one of President Bush's ultra-liberal enemies. They
were spoken by John Sununu, a proudly libertarian conservative
Republican from New Hampshire. The other Republicans who voted
with Sununu to force more deliberation on the Patriot Act share
his libertarian streak: Larry Craig, Lisa Murkowski and Chuck
Hagel. Not a liberal in the bunch. They were joined by 41 Democrats
and one independent.
Last week's vote
was not a sudden rebellion. Sununu, Craig and Murkowski have been
working closely with Democratic Sens. Russ Feingold, Dick Durbin
and Ken Salazar to craft a new version of the Patriot Act that
would be both tough but sensitive to the concerns of libertarians.
In an interview,
Sununu said he had spent months trying to persuade administration
officials that they could not wait until the act was about to
expire, roll over Senate objections, then ``throw something on
the floor at the last minute and expect it to pass.''
Feingold, as the
only member of the Senate willing to stand up against the Patriot
Act when it was first passed in 2001, deserves acclaim for bringing
around so many of his colleagues. By backing Feingold, Pat Leahy,
the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and Harry Reid,
the Senate Democratic leader, made it easier for others in their
party to withstand the inevitable attacks from Republicans that
supporting civil liberties made them soft on terrorism. But because
Sununu made clear early on that he would not back away from his
insistence that more rights be protected in the Patriot Act, he
made it far easier for Feingold to attract wavering Democrats.
-- but, alas, not surprisingly -- Bush not only attacked Reid,
but acted as if the old rhetoric from four years ago would work
again. ``The terrorists want to strike America again,'' Bush said
on Monday. ``And they hope to inflict even greater damage than
they did on September the 11th. Congress has a responsibility
to give our law enforcement and intelligence officials the tools
they need to protect the American people. The senators who are
filibustering the Patriot Act must stop their delaying tactics
and the Senate must vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act.''
Such scare tactics
once petrified Democrats. This time, they are protected by the
defensive line of Sununu, Craig, Murkowski and Hagel.
In the interview
over the weekend, Sununu said he hoped that Bush would realize
that the dynamics of this debate had changed since the days immediately
after 9/11. ``We've had four years,'' he said. ``There are specific
aspects of the law we didn't have time to consider in depth between
Sept. 11 and the passage of the Patriot Act. We've taken a look
at these areas in a more deliberative way.''
Bush said that ``it is inexcusable for the United States Senate
to let this Patriot Act expire.'' Sununu quickly replied with
his proposal to extend the act for three months to give the various
sides time to work out their differences.
Imagine: A Republican
insisting that the president negotiate seriously with Congress.
Because Sununu, Feingold and their allies stood up, the checks
and balances we regularly praise as part of our constitutional
system are, once again, alive and well. It's the act one would
expect from patriots.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group