WASHINGTON - In a stinging defeat for President Bush, Senate Democrats blocked passage Friday of a new Patriot Act to combat terrorism at home, depicting the measure as a threat to the constitutional liberties of innocent Americans.
Republicans spurned calls for a short-term measure to prevent the year-end expiration of law enforcement powers first enacted in the anxious days after Sept. 11, 2001. "The president will not sign such an extension," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and lawmakers on each side of the issue blamed the other for congressional gridlock on the issue.
The Senate voted 52-47 to advance a House-passed bill to a final vote, eight short of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster backed by nearly all Senate Democrats and a handful of the 55 Republicans.
"We can come together to give the government the tools it needs to fight terrorism and protect the rights and freedoms of innocent citizens," said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., arguing that provisions permitting government access to confidential personal data lacked safeguards to protect the innocent.
"We need to be more vigilant," agreed Sen. John Sununu, a Republican from New Hampshire, where the state motto is "Live Free or Die." He quoted Benjamin Franklin: "Those that would give up essential liberty in pursuit of a little temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security."
But Frist likened the bill's opponents to those who "have called for a retreat and defeat strategy in Iraq. That's the wrong strategy in Iraq. It is the wrong strategy here at home."
Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., said, "If 90-plus percent of the Democrats vote against cloture, and 90-plus percent of the Republicans vote for cloture, it is hard to argue it is not partisan." Cloture is a Senate term that refers to ending a filibuster.
In a statement, Bush said terrorists "want to attack America again and kill the innocent and inflict even greater damage" than four years ago. "Congress has a responsibility not to take away this vital tool that law enforcement and intelligence have used."
Congressional officials pointed to a provision in the existing law that said even if it expired, law enforcement agencies could continue to wield Patriot Act powers in existing investigations of all known groups such as al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and the Zarqawi group in Iraq.
Justice Department officials said no existing wiretap would have to be turned off. But they said expiration of the law would create confusion about whether information gleaned after Jan. 1 could be shared, even if it stemmed from an ongoing investigation.
Much of the controversy involved powers granted to law enforcement agencies to gain access to a wealth of personal data, including library and medical records, in secret, as part of investigations into suspected terrorist activity.
The bill also includes a four-year extension of the government's ability to conduct roving wiretaps - which may involve multiple phones - and continues the authority to wiretap "lone wolf" terrorists who may operate on their own, without control from a foreign agent or power.
Yet another provision, which applies to all criminal cases, gives the government 30 days to provide notice that it has carried out a search warrant. Current law requires the government to disclose search warrants in a reasonable period of time.
During debate, several Democrats pointed to a New York Times report that Bush had secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on individuals inside the United States without first securing permission from the courts.
"Today's revelation makes it crystal clear that we have to be very careful, very careful," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
No Republican defended the reported practice, and the bill's chief Republican supporter joined in the criticism. "There is no doubt that this is inappropriate," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He pledged hearings in 2006.
Under the measure the Senate was considering, law enforcement officials could continue to obtain secret access to a variety of personal records from businesses, hospitals and other organizations, including libraries.
Access is obtained by order of a secret court established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Specter told the bill's critics that before such permission is granted, a judge would have to "make a determination on a factual showing that there is a terrorism investigation that does involve foreigners."
On a second issue covered under the bill, a so-called National Security Letter, government investigators could continue to gain access to a more limited range of personal records without a court order of any kind.
Specter said the legislation permitted the recipient of a letter to appeal in court. "The essence of the protection of civil rights ... has been that you interpose an impartial magistrate between the policeman and the citizens. That protection is given," he said.
The recipient of such an order is barred from disclosing it, and Sununu said that in order to overturn the gag order, "you have to show...bad faith on the part of the federal government, and no individual or business will ever be able to show that."
On the Senate vote, two Democrats supported the GOP-led effort to advance the bill to a final vote, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Sununu and GOP Sens. Larry Craig of Idaho, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted to block the measure. Frist initially voted to advance the bill, then switched to opposition purely as a parliamentary move that enables him to call for a second vote at some point in the future.
On a separate issue, the House called for the Bush administration to give Congress details of secret detention facilities overseas. The vote was 228-187.