This year, even as the surge of the tea party brought to Washington a new legion of lawmakers suspicious of government power, the law again has a good chance of being reauthorized.
Since the law first passed with broad bipartisan support in October 2001, just after the 9/11 attacks, the debate has pitted civil libertarians against those who believe the government needs stronger tools to fight terrorism. Critics say the government has abused its powers by using the law in cases not connected to terrorism, while supporters—including the Obama administration, which wants the law extended with only minor modifications—say sufficient safeguards are in place.
Now some Republican newcomers with tea-party roots are shaking up that political map.
Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, made the Patriot Act a major 2010 campaign issue. He said it threatened the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches, just as gun control threatened Second Amendment rights to bear arms.
Moira Bagley, spokeswoman for Sen. Paul, said he plans to work with fellow legislators to address those concerns.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon also objects to the government's power under the act to subpoena business records that are "relevant" to a terrorism investigation, without seeking a court warrant. That has made Congress leery of doing anything to hinder law enforcement.
Even among tea-party activists, opinion is divided. Coordinators of one umbrella group, Tea Party Patriots, said they discussed the Patriot Act during a conference call this week and found a diversity of views.
Ryan Hecker, a Houston lawyer and tea-party organizer, says he believes the act has helped curb terrorism and "the movement should remain agnostic." Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced a bill last month seeking to extend the provisions through 2013. His bill called for tweaks including new protections for companies that receive national security letters, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation uses to gather records from Internet providers without court oversight.