End of The Patriot Act?

WASHINGTON — “A nation in fear cannot be a nation that's free,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., warned from the Senate floor today, blasting Democratic-led efforts that put on hold a permanent renewal of the controversial USA Patriot Act on hold.

Democrats — and some Republicans — had sought a compromise with the Bush Administration on the Act, asking for a temporary renewal in order to have time to further study the bill so that additional civil liberties protections could be added, but supporters, including President Bush, have refused any such extension.

A small but vocal group of both Republican and Democratic senators have said the Patriot Act bestows too much power to the government, especially when it comes to investigating private transactions, bank records, library use and medical or computer records.

The House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly passed the Patriot Act extension, with four Democrats joining 207 Republicans in a vote to extend the bill past its year-end expiration date.

Senators, however, appear less unified in their support, in stark contrast to the nearly unanimous support senators gave the bill shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.

“Should we take a step forward in making America safer or should we go back to the pre-9/11 days when terrorists slip through the cracks?” Frist, said from the floor.

By a strange twist of fate, Frist and fellow supporters of the Patriot Act may inadvertently contribute to its expiration, as their refusal to allow further study of the bill has sparked Democratic-led promises of a filibuster.

That is something neither side wants, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who claimed everyone on the Senate floor believes elements of the Patriot Act are vital to the nation’s security.

“Continued good-faith negotiation will result in solving the problems in a way that will be acceptable to a vast majority of this body and will not in any way diminish the ability of our law enforcement and intelligence organizations to do their job,” Feinstein said in her response to Frist.

Feinstein and her fellow critics, who include an array of senators from both sides of the political spectrum, say they just want time to make sure the bill does not infringe on civil liberties.

“Folks, when we're dealing with civil liberties, you don't compromise them,” Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, a staunch conservative and National Rifle Association board member, said, echoing Feinstein’s claims.

That USA Patriot Act is set to expire Dec. 31.