WASHINGTON --The Senate brushed aside a bid to block renewal of the antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act yesterday, voting 96-3 against changes urged by Sen. Russell D. Feingold, the act's most persistent critic.
Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, said he wants to make the Senate debate several more days on the bill, and under the Senate's rules he can do so. But yesterday's vote signaled that, once Feingold has exhausted his moves, the act will be renewed by the Senate before its scheduled expiration March 10.
In explaining his continued resistance, Feingold borrowed a quote from Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who is head of the Judiciary Committee and is the bill's sponsor: "Sometimes cosmetics will make a beauty out of a beast and provide enough cover for senators to change their vote."
Feingold, not looking for cover, said, "No amount of cosmetics is going to make this beast look any prettier."
He was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act, which broadened government surveillance powers, when it was passed by Congress shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The senator has insisted all along that the act impinges too much on personal liberty in the pursuit of national security.
"We still have not addressed some of the most significant problems with the Patriot Act," Feingold said yesterday.
Joining him in voting "no" were Sens. Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, and James M. Jeffords, an independent from Vermont. Byrd is first in seniority in the Senate and a jealous guardian of what he considers congressional prerogatives against intrusion by the executive branch.
Jeffords' contrarian streak was demonstrated in 2001 when he bolted the Republican Party.
Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, did not vote yesterday.
The House has already voted to renew the Patriot Act. But the law met stiff resistance from some senators of both parties. Modifications to it in recent weeks have satisfied the overwhelming majority of the senators.
But not Feingold, who has complained that even as modified the bill would still allow "government fishing expeditions" through the seizure of "sensitive business records of innocent, law-abiding Americans."
Not many weeks ago, Sen. John E. Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican, was among the senators sharing Feingold's concerns. But Sununu said he was satisfied with changes in the law.