Once-Lone Foe of Patriot Act Has Company

WASHINGTON, Dec. 18 - When Congress passed the antiterrorism bill known as
the USA Patriot Act in the fall of 2001, greatly expanding the government's
investigative powers, a single senator, Russell D. Feingold, Democrat of
Wisconsin, voted against it. With the nation reeling from the Sept. 11
attacks, opposing the bill seemed an act of political suicide, especially
for a Democrat.

Today, more than 40 Democrats and four Republicans stand with Mr. Feingold
as he helps lead a filibuster blocking the act's renewal. They are betting
that the politics of terrorism have shifted from fear of another attack to
wariness of "Big Brother" intrusions on personal privacy.

"If we stand up and say, as we are doing now, that we are absolutely
committed to fighting terrorism, and that we are absolutely committed to the
civil liberties of the American people, then that's a winning position," Mr.
Feingold said in a recent interview. "For us to show weakness on civil
liberties at this point would be another sign to people that the Democratic
Party is not standing up for what it believes in."

Polls suggest that the public is supportive of the act but skeptical.
President Bush's admission on Saturday that he had authorized the National
Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans may have deepened that skepticism.
With Mr. Bush facing criticism, even from within his own party, for his
handling of the war in Iraq and his policies on the detention and treatment
of military prisoners, the Patriot Act could soon become a casualty of
shifting public sentiment.

The act's 16 major provisions are set to expire at the end of the month, and
in his radio address on Saturday, Mr. Bush warned that the Senate action
"endangers the lives of our citizens." He added, "In the war on terror, we
cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment."

Senators on both sides agree that the law is necessary, yet on Sunday, their
efforts to renew it remained stalled. Democrats are pressing for a
three-month extension to give lawmakers time to settle their differences,
but the White House and the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, have

"None of us want it to expire," Mr. Feingold said Sunday, in an appearance
on the CNN television program "Late Edition" with Senator Arlen Specter, the
Judiciary Committee chairman and the bill's chief Senate sponsor. "It is
only the president who is basically playing chicken with us."

The legislation bottled up in the Senate was the product of weeks of
negotiations with the House, which passed it last week by a vote of 251 to
174. The bill would make permanent 14 of the 16 provisions. Should they
lapse, proponents of the extension say, investigators would be hampered in
their pursuit of terrorists.

With the House trying to adjourn for the year early Monday and the Senate by
midweek, Mr. Frist said Sunday that he had not decided whether to call for a
second vote. Mr. Specter, meanwhile, said Sunday that he had called his
Democratic counterpart, Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, to suggest a
change in the bill. But asked if he thought it was still possible to get the
bill passed, Mr. Specter did not sound optimistic. "Well, barely," he said.

Republicans say Democratic candidates will suffer in the 2006 mid-term
elections if the act lapses, just as they did in 2002 when Democrats
rejected legislation to create a new Department of Homeland Security.

"Here we go again," said Dick Wadhams, a Republican strategist who is now
chief of staff to Senator George Allen of Virginia.

One Republican, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, went so far as to warn
colleagues that they would be held responsible for another attack. "God help
us if there's some kind of terrorist attack when we are not protected by the
Patriot Act," he said, adding, "We will have to answer for that."

At the same time, strategists of both parties say the Homeland Security
debate and the Patriot Act debate are difficult to compare. As Mr. Wadhams
noted, the Homeland Security fight took place one month before the 2002
elections, while the 2006 elections are still a year off.

Democrats held up passage of the Homeland Security bill because of a dispute
over labor rights for federal employees, but the new debate focuses on the
question of how to balance keeping Americans safe with protecting their
civil liberties.

Polls show that public support for the Patriot Act has waned over time and
that the more Americans know about the act, the less they like it.

An ABC News poll in June found that half of Americans believed the
government was doing enough to protect their privacy, down from
three-quarters shortly after the act was passed. A Gallup poll, also
conducted in June, found that 30 percent believed the Patriot Act went "too
far" in restricting civil liberties, but among those very familiar with the
bill, the figure was 45 percent.

And a University of Connecticut survey, published in August, found that
roughly three-quarters of Americans worried that the Patriot Act would be
abused to investigate matters unrelated to terrorism.

"The polls are pretty clear that voters want limits on the government's
power," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic strategist. "This is really an
argument not about fighting terrorism but about checks and balances and
unbridled government authority."

Mr. Garin says the Patriot Act generates particular suspicion among white
male voters, who resist government intrusion on matters ranging from gun
ownership to property rights. That could explain why the biggest supporter
of gun rights in the Senate, Senator Larry Craig, Republican of Idaho, is
among those backing the filibuster.

Another Republican backer of the filibuster, Senator John E. Sununu of New
Hampshire, said: "In my state, I think there's pretty strong support for
protecting civil liberties during times of war and peace."

It also helps the Democrats that some of the chief supporters of the
filibuster, including Mr. Leahy and Mr. Feingold, have broken with their
party on other issues. Both those senators recently voted to confirm Chief
Justice John G. Roberts Jr. And in 2001, Mr. Feingold was the only Democrat
on the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote to confirm John Ashcroft as
attorney general.

Mr. Feingold, widely believed to be considering a run for the White House in
2008, sounded confident last week. "I hope and believe," he said, "that the
Democrats are done allowing Republicans and others to use phony fears as a
way to attack us."

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