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As opposition wilts, Senate moves to extend Patriot Act

Easy passage is expected for a law somewhat revised

WASHINGTON -- The Senate yesterday cleared the path for renewing the USA Patriot Act, swatting aside objections while adding new protections for people targeted by government investigations.

The votes virtually ensured that Congress will renew President Bush's antiterror law before it expires March 10. The House is expected to approve the legislation and send the bill to the president next week.

The law's opponents, who insisted the new protections were cosmetic, conceded defeat.

''The die has now been cast," acknowledged the law's chief opponent, Senator Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, after the Senate voted, 84 to 15, to end his filibuster. ''Obviously at this point, final passage of the reauthorization bill is now assured."

Feingold had succeeded for months in blocking one part of the legislative package, a House-Senate compromise that would renew 16 major provisions of the law that are set to expire next week. Unable to break his objection by the Dec. 31 expiration date, Congress instead postponed the deadline twice while negotiations continued.

The White House and GOP leaders finally broke the stalemate by crafting a second measure -- in effect an amendment to the first -- that would somewhat limit the government's power to compel information from people targeted in terror probes.

That second measure passed overwhelmingly earlier in the day, 95 to 4. Voting 'no' with Feingold were Senator James M. Jeffords, Independent of Vermont, Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, and Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia.

The second measure added new protections to the 2001 antiterror law in three areas. It would:

Give recipients of court-approved subpoenas for information in terrorist investigations the right to challenge a requirement that they refrain from telling anyone.

Eliminate a requirement that an individual provide the FBI with the name of a lawyer consulted about a National Security Letter, which is a demand for records issued by investigators.

Clarify that most libraries are not subject to demands in those letters for information about suspected terrorists.

Feingold and his allies said the restrictions on government power would be virtually meaningless in practice. Though small, his group of four objectors represented progress for Feingold. In 2001, he cast the lone vote against the original Patriot Act, citing concerns over the new powers it granted the FBI.

Yesterday the package's authors cast the vote in pragmatic terms.

''Both bills represent a vast improvement over current law," said the author of the new curbs, Senator John E. Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire.

Feingold, a possible candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said, ''I am disappointed in this result, but I believe this fight has been worth making."

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