Congress is rushing to extend the life of three anti-terror tools, including the use of roving wiretaps, before they expire at midnight Thursday.
The Senate was set to start voting on the legislation, including possible amendments, Thursday morning. Final passage during the day would send it to the House for quick approval and then onward to President Barack Obama in Europe for his signature.
The rapid-fire action on key elements of the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act comes after several days of impasse in the Senate and results in part from the prodding of senior intelligence officials, who warned of the consequences of disrupting surveillance operations.
"Should the authority to use these critical tools expire, our nation's intelligence and law enforcement professionals will have less capability than they have today to detect terrorist plots," James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, wrote congressional leaders.
The legislation would extend for four years provisions that allow law enforcement officials to set roving wiretaps to monitor multiple communications devices; obtain court-approved access to business records and other documents, including library check-outs, that might be relevant to a terrorist threat; and conduct surveillance of "lone wolf" suspects not known to be tied to specific terrorist groups.
The Patriot Act was passed soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and almost all of it is permanent law. But the provisions on roving wiretaps and access to business documents were given expiration dates because of concerns that they overstepped boundaries on civil liberties. Those two and the "lone wolf" measure, which was part of a 2004 intelligence law, have needed numerous temporary extensions as lawmakers argued over how best to ensure that they were not abusing individual rights.
The effort to extend the provisions this time came down to a showdown between the Senate's most powerful member, Majority Leader Harry Reid, and a Republican freshman, Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Paul, a libertarian and tea party favorite, opposes the Patriot Act and objects to renewal of the expiring provisions on the grounds that they violate constitutional rights to privacy. Negotiations with Reid failed to meet Paul's demands that he be able to offer amendments to the legislation, including one amendment that would have excluded some gun records from Patriot Act investigations.
An exasperated Reid used procedural maneuvers to cut off debate, while Paul refused to allow the time for a final vote to be moved up.
"If the senator from Kentucky refuses to relent," Reid said earlier Wednesday, "that would increase the risk of a retaliatory terrorist strike against the homeland and hamper our ability to deal a truly fatal blow to al-Qaida."
Paul objected to the "scurrilous accusation. I've been accused of wanting to allow terrorists to have weapons to attack America. ... Can we not have a debate ... over whether or not there should be some constitutional protections?"
Paul had support from several Democrats who want to see more congressional oversight of how the Patriot Act operations are carried out. Sen. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in a proposed amendment co-sponsored by Paul, would have required audits on the use of surveillance authorities and required the government to provide more proof of a link to a foreign group or power to obtain sensitive library circulation records and bookseller records.
But with the expiration date approaching and little likelihood of a compromise with the House, the Democrats acceded to letting the bill move forward. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said he was not happy they weren't able to deal with the bill differently, but allowing the provisions to lapse was "unacceptable."
Damage from a short-term lapse would probably be minimal. The government would be unable to get court warrants for new investigations but could still get court authority in the case of foreign intelligence investigations that were already under way before the provisions expired.
Todd Hinnen, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's national security division, said at a congressional hearing in March that the government seeks warrants for business records fewer than 40 times a year and that between 2001 and 2010, it sought roving wiretap authority in about 20 cases a year. He said the government has yet to use its lone wolf authority.
Associated Press writer Pete Yost contributed to this report.