Monday, May 30, 2011

Obama Signs Expiring Patriot Act Provisions with Autopen

By Niels Lesniewski and Brian Friel, CQ Staff

Minutes before the deadline for expiring provisions of the 2001 anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act, the White House said President Obama signed the four-year extension that the House cleared Thursday night.
The White House said the president, traveling in Europe, would direct the use of the autopen to sign the bill (S 990) into law and thereby prevent the lapsing of the anti-terrorism authorities set to expire at 12:01 a.m. Friday.
White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said the autopen would be used because the “failure to sign this legislation poses a significant risk to U.S. national security.” An autopen, frequently used by members of Congress for signing constituent correspondence and other letters, is a machine that generates a facsimile of an individual’s signature.
The Office of Legal Counsel issued an opinion in 2005 that confirms the president’s authority to direct a subordinate to put the president’s signature on an enrolled bill through autopen.

House Action

The House concurred in the Senate amendment to the bill by a vote of 250-153, with 31 Republicans joining 122 Democrats to vote against the extension. Fifty-four Democrats voted for the bill.
While Republican leaders urged their colleagues to clear the measure, calling it a “bipartisan and bicameral compromise,” opponents took time to make the case against the extension during House floor debate.
Democrats and Republicans against the measure said the death of Osama bin Laden had changed the intelligence climate and raised concerns that Congress was “once again” rushing to reauthorize the capabilities.
“These provisions were given a sunset for a reason,” argued longtime Patriot Act opponent Dennis J. Kucinich, D-Ohio.
But supporters of the measure strongly disagreed with that conclusion. House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, insisted the provisions “continue to play a vital role in America’s counterterrorism efforts.”
Smith said Congress has done the necessary oversight and held numerous hearings on the provisions. He also stressed the administration’s support for the extension.

Senate Action

Earlier Thursday, before final adoption 72-23 of a motion to concur in an unrelated House measure (S 990) with substitute language, the Senate soundly rejected two amendments offered by Rand Paul, R-Ky.
The main stumbling block to passage was an amendment offered by Paul that would have barred government investigators from using the Patriot Act’s “business record” provision to obtain the background forms that gun buyers fill out when they purchase firearms from licensed gun dealers.
Republicans objected to the amendment, Paul said earlier in the day. Though the Senate often passes gun-rights measures, this one was easily defeated when the Senate voted to table it, 85-10. Montanans Max Baucus and Jon Tester were the only Democrats to support the amendment. The National Rifle Association (NRA) announced concerns with the amendment on Thursday. But the group took a neutral position on the vote, meaning it will not be used to rank senators in the group’s upcoming vote studies.
By a vote of 91-4, the Senate tabled, and thus killed, another Paul amendment that would restrict the collection of suspicious activity reports to requests from law enforcement.
The overall measure would grant a four-year extension on provisions that allow the government to seek orders from a special court for “any tangible thing” related to a terrorism probe; to obtain roving wiretaps on suspected terrorists who switch modes of communication; and to apply to a special court for surveillance orders on “lone wolf” terrorists who are not connected to any organization.
The Obama administration issued a statement in support of the Senate-passed measure Thursday.
The Senate voted 79-18 earlier Thursday to limit debate on the compromise extension measure. The language was agreed to last week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the top Republican in each chamber — House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. wrote to Reid and McConnell on Wednesday warning of the security risks associated with delaying the extension of the three provisions.
“Should the authority to use these critical intelligence tools expire, our nation’s intelligence and law enforcement professionals will have less capability than they have today to detect and thwart terrorist plots against our homeland and our interests abroad,” Clapper wrote.

Other Amendments Set Aside

While much of the focus had been on a disagreement over Paul’s amendments, critics of the Patriot Act (PL 107-56) on the Democratic side had sought consideration of other amendments.
Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., pressed throughout Thursday for consideration of his amendment restricting government surveillance powers, which was based on a measure (S 193) his committee approved earlier this year. Leahy ultimately relented after McConnell objected to a vote on the amendment.
Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she opposed Paul’s gun amendment but also said other senators were likely skittish about voting on it.
“Essentially, you’re saying you can’t get business records of terrorists who are buying guns, which is ridiculous,” Feinstein said. “I think people are concerned with how the NRA scores the vote. I’m not.”
On a separate amendment, Democrats Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado wanted to make public the government’s legal interpretation of Patriot Act authorities. “There are two Patriot Acts in America,” Wyden said. “There is the one that people read and it’s in front of them and say this is the text of it. And then there is the secret interpretation of the law.”
Wyden and Udall dropped that amendment in return for a pledge from Feinstein to take up the matter in the Intelligence Committee. Reid also said he would allow a vote later in the year on the amendment if Wyden and Udall were unsatisfied with the Intelligence Committee’s handling of the matter.
Frances Symes contributed to this story.

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