The President's Patriot Act Stumble

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Democratic Senators Ken Salazar, Russ Feingold and Patrick Leahy explain their filibuster

Rebel conservative Republicans and Senate Democrats handed George W. Bush a major defeat Friday, but GOP officials insist it will end up backfiring in next year's mid-term elections. Despite intense pressure from the White House and Senate Republican leadership to extend for 4 to 10 years parts of the USA Patriot Act that are due to expire at the end of the month and make other parts permanent, civil-liberty-minded opponents of the bill brought it down Friday by sustaining a filibuster. Revelations in Friday's New York Times that the White House had secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists within the United States since 9/11 without warrants only stiffened opponents' resolve and helped attract new allies. Democrat Charles Schumer, for instance, went to bed Thursday undecided, he said, but the Times article "greatly influenced my vote" to maintain the filibuster.

The backroom haggling and front-and-center rhetoric over the Act's extension went on right up to the end. Earlier in the week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist declined an offer made by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy of the Judiciary Committee to enact a three-month extension of the law to buy time for further negotiations. In the last few days, the White House dispatched Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to address the Senate Republicans' policy luncheon on Capitol Hill. But he failed to convince key Senators, such as Republicans Larry Craig of Idaho, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, all of whom object to the limited checks on executive authority in the bill. Instead, the opponents won over other GOP colleagues, including presidential hopeful Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. The rhetoric got so hot Thursday that Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, a White House ally on the issue, said on the floor of the Senate that a terrorist attack that occurred after the expiration could be on the heads of those who voted to support the filibuster.

At the same time, Democratic opponents, led by Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Dick Durbin of Illinois, held moderates like Mary Landrieu of Lousiana and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and the increasingly hawkish Hillary Clinton of New York. The numbers left the GOP and the President short by 8 votes in their attempt to override the filibuster. As the clock ticked down Thursday night, the GOP leadership launched a last-ditch effort to swing Senators, threatening to let the law's sunsetted provisions expire entirely. "Tomorrow's vote is going to be the only vote," warned Frist aide Bob Stevenson.

Despite the apparent Democratic win, Republicans are convinced it will prove to be a Pyrrhic victory in an election year. They claim it will be the perfect weapon to beat the Dems with next November. "If they're against this it's going to hurt them politically," says a top GOP aide. "When you side with the American Civil Liberties Union over law enforcement, you got a problem in an election year."