Playing chicken with the Patriot Act

Forty senators are willing to extend the act to avoid the expiration date Bush fears. Why is Bill Frist saying no?

By Tim Grieve

Published December 19, 2005 8:03PM (EST)

When he wasn't playing "kill the messenger" today on revelations that his administration has been spying on American citizens in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, George W. Bush was setting the stage to blame his critics the next time terrorists attack the United States. The president said that senators who voted to filibuster a bill reauthorizing the USA Patriot Act last week "need to explain why they thought the Patriot Act was a vital tool after the September the 11th attacks, but now think it's no longer necessary."

As is often the case, the president was playing a little loose with the facts. In July, the Senate approved -- by unanimous consent -- a bill that would have reauthorized much of the Patriot Act while reforming some of its most contentious provisions. What 47 senators blocked Friday was a version of that bill that came out of a House-Senate conference committee, a version that rolled back the civil-liberties protections the Senate had inserted when it took up the question of renewal over the summer.

Bush said that the United States "cannot afford to be without" the Patriot Act "for a single moment," and he challenged "senators from New York or Los Angeles or Las Vegas to go home and explain why these cities are safer" without the Patriot Act in place. While they're doing that, perhaps a senator from Nashville might want to explain why he won't agree to a three-month extension of the current Patriot Act that would give the Senate time to work toward a compromise. Forty senators have signed off on such an extension, but in a high-stakes game of chicken, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is insisting -- for now, at least -- on an all-or-nothing, up-or-down vote on the version of the renewal now pending.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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