If Congress couldn't agree on changes in the Patriot Act in four years, why are Democrats confident it can be done in the next five weeks?
Democrats said they were not out to kill the act, but wanted changes to safeguard civil liberties. So, they forced a compromise in the House and Senate to extend the act until Feb. 3 instead of letting its key provisions expire Dec. 31. However, it wasn't a losing proposition for Republicans and the Bush administration. The Patriot Act will continue until Feb. 3 without change.
The group that prevented the Senate from voting on long-term extension of the act - including Illinois' U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin - must be held responsible for making sure we have a national safety net against terrorism in place after Feb. 3. If they don't like what we have, they have an obligation to make it better - without watering it down.
The Patriot Act has weaknesses, such as the lack of expiration dates on some provisions. U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, Republican from Champaign, was bothered enough about the lack of sunset clauses that he voted against a compromise bill approved in the House two weeks ago. U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, Republican from Peoria, also had early reservations about the same issue, but after expiration dates were added to some parts of the act he voted for the House compromise that was filibustered in the Senate.
The Patriot Act was drafted shortly after the 9/11 to pave the way for us to aggressively go after terrorists, so there are provisions that sounded good then that have caused some concern since. Among the more controversial provisions is one that allows the government to look at our public library usage - a perceived concern, not a documented problem.
Democrats called their Senate filibuster a "bipartisan" effort because the organizing group involved three Democrats and three Republicans. But only five Republicans sided with Democrats to prevent a vote on the Patriot Act.
Some leaders of the Democratic Party see a sinister plot behind every effort to provide the tools needed by our intelligence agencies to protect us from future attacks by groups that have repeatedly stated their intent to cause us harm. Yet, these same leaders were quick to point out every failing of these agencies when the 9/11 attacks occurred.
Illinois' other senator, Democrat Barack Obama, has only been in office for a year, but we wish his conciliatory attitude was infectious. While others were planning their filibuster, Obama said: "Giving law enforcement the tools they need to investigate suspicious activity is the right thing, and the Senate showed earlier this year that it can be done with the oversight of our judicial system so we do not jeopardize the rights of all Americans and the ideals America stands for. We should not let the Patriot Act expire at the end of this year, but instead extend the current law for three months so that we can come to an agreement on these critical issues in Congress." That was before Senate Democrats approved six months and finally agreed to the five-week compromise at the last minute before departing on a Christmas break.
Maybe this is Obama's opportunity to show what kind of a mediator he is. Instead of letting senior senators continue their political ways, Obama should use his carryover clout from the Democratic National Convention to establish a more conciliatory tone on the Patriot Act.