Leaders agree on Patriot Act extension

WASHINGTON — Top congressional leaders agreed Thursday to a four-year extension of the anti-terrorist Patriot Act, the controversial law passed after the Sept. 11 attacks that governs the search for terrorists on American soil.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, reached agreement Thursday on an amendment-free extension of three major Patriot Act provisions until June 1, 2015, according to a senior Democratic aide. The idea is to pass the extension with as little debate as possible to avoid a protracted and familiar argument over the expanded power the law gives to the government.

The Senate will take up the measure first, with the vote on ending debate slated for next Monday and a final-passage vote possible Wednesday. The House would then follow suit by the end of the week.

Leadership aides acknowledge that next week's votes will probably be difficult ones for many members, particularly in the House, where Republicans are likely to need the votes of some Democrats to pass the measure. More than two dozen House Republicans voted against the three-month extension in February.

The three provisions that are set to expire May 27 include one that authorizes the FBI to continue using roving wiretaps on surveillance targets; another that allows the government to access "any tangible items," such as library records, in the course of surveillance; and a "lone wolf" provision that allows for the surveillance of targets who are not connected to an identified terrorist group.

Support for the extension was unclear.

From its inception, the law's increased surveillance powers have been criticized by liberals and conservatives alike as infringements on free speech rights and protections against unwarranted searches and seizures.

Many Republicans had been pushing for a permanent, or at least a longer-term, extension of the expiring provisions. Most Democrats had preferred a shorter-term extension of several years.

Members of both parties, however, have opposed an extension of any length, arguing that the three controversial provisions represent a violation of civil liberties.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wanted tighter restrictions on the government's power and may seek to amend it. In the House, members of the freshman class elected on promises of making government smaller were skeptical.

"I still have some concerns, and at this point I'm leaning against (voting for) it," said one, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md.

Some Patriot Act opponents suggest that Osama bin Laden's demise this month should prompt Congress to reconsider the law, written when the terrorist leader was at the peak of his power. But the act's supporters warn that al-Qaida splinter groups, scattered from Pakistan to the United States and beyond, may try to retaliate.

"Now more than ever, we need access to the crucial authorities in the Patriot Act," Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee.