The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved legislation that would renew provisions of the Patriot Act that are set to expire May 27.
The panel voted 22–13, mostly along party lines, to report out of committee legislation that would extend until Dec. 31, 2017, the “roving wiretaps” power and “business records” authority, which makes it easier for federal authorities to get tangible evidence — such as library records — as part of an investigation. The bill also would give a permanent extension to the expiring “lone wolf” power, which allows investigations of suspected terrorists not tied to a specific organization or nation.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah was the only Republican to vote against the bill. Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi of Puerto Rico and Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois were the only Democrats to vote in favor of the legislation.
“The expiring provisions of the PATRIOT Act are both constitutional and common sense,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said in prepared remarks. “There is no record of their having been misused by any law enforcement official or national security agency.”
Democrats offered several amendments that would have put limitations on the use of the powers and required more reports to Congress on their use. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) also offered an amendment that would extend the three powers until only Dec. 2014. The committee didn’t adopt any of the amendments.
“The majority of course has the votes to shut down amendment and report a so-called “’clean bill’ to the floor,” Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top panel Democrat, said in prepared remarks. “I have no idea why it would take this course, since the Senate is obviously pursuing meaningful reform and civil libertarians on both sides of the aisle are ready to deal.”
Legislation introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) would extend the three expiring provisions until Dec. 31, 2013. The bill also would employ a sunset for national security letters, which are administrative subpoenas that the FBI uses to get evidence without a court order. A bill introduced by Conyers on Tuesday contains these provisions.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Leahy bill in March. But the Senate measure failed to win much support from panel Republicans with only Sen. Mike Lee of Utah voting in favor of reporting the bill out of committee. The seven Republicans who voted against the bill said they were worried the legislation would make it more difficult for law enforcement authorities to use the national security powers.
Congress has only days to pass a bill renewing the powers. Between May 12 and May 27, the House has six days set aside for floor votes and is not slated to hold votes on May 27. The Senate, which is slated to be in session until May 27, has yet to schedule a floor vote on a bill extending the powers.
The three authorities are currently allowed under a 90-day extension that Congress passed in February.
The House tried to pass a Patriot Act renewal bill in February that would have extended the powers until December. That measure was considered under House procedures that required a two-thirds majority to pass the bill. But House Democrats and conservative Republicans joined together and the bill was not passed.