WASHINGTON - Racing against the clock, Congress approved Thursday a four-year extension to key provisions of the Patriot Act that continue the ability of federal investigators to use aggressive surveillance tactics in connection with suspected terrorists.
Overcoming objections from a bipartisan clutch of libertarian-minded lawmakers, the legislation passed the Senate, 72-23, and the House, 250-153.
Lawmakers faced a midnight deadline to pass an extension before the provisions expire. President Barack Obama is attending a summit in France, but aides said he would direct aides to have the bill signed by auto-pen before midnight.
Some supporters had warned that any interruption in the law could have dire consequences for national security, while opponents demanded more time to debate the need for such provisions almost 10 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"We shouldn't be fearful. We shouldn't be fearful of freedom, we shouldn't be fearful of individual liberty," freshman Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the legislation's lead opponent, said Thursday.
Under the provisions extended into 2015, investigators could get court orders to follow terror suspects with "roving wiretaps" that cover multiple phone numbers and multiple carriers. It would also extend provisions allowing investigators to seize customer records for suspected terrorists.
The vote on the bill came less than a month after U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, reassuring support on Capitol Hill in general for the anti-terror tools put in place in the wake of al-Qaida's attacks 10 years ago. Administration officials have warned of possible retaliation attacks for the bin Laden killing, a fact that supporters of the Patriot Act cited Thursday.
"The raid that killed Osama bin Laden also yielded an enormous amount of new information that has spurred dozens of investigations yielding new leads every day. Without the Patriot Act, investigators would not have the tools they need to follow these new leads and disrupt terrorist plots, needlessly putting our national security at risk," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.
The Senate debate created unusual coalitions on the far left and far right. Paul, considered the most conservative senator, was joined in his opposition by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., among the most liberal.
Paul fought for several days to offer a string of amendments to the legislation, including one that would exempt some gun-record searches from being accessible to federal investigators. That proposal was deemed too much for even the National Rifle Association, as just 10 senators supported it and 85 voted against it.