The Senate approved a bill on Tuesday to extend for 88 days three provisions of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act set to expire in two weeks.
The Democratic-led Senate took the action on a bipartisan vote of 86-12, giving it more time to address civil-liberty concerns about the provisions that authorize expanded U.S. powers to track suspected terrorists.
The bill would also provide the Senate additional time to reach an agreement with the House of Representatives on a possibly longer-term extension and added safeguards.
The Senate-passed measure amended legislation approved by the new Republican-led House on Monday that would provide a nine-month renewal of the provisions.
Congress approved the Patriot Act shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
The three provisions set to expire on February 28 authorize U.S. law enforcement to: obtain "roving wiretaps" on suspected terrorists who switch their mode of communications; track foreigners who may have loose ties to militants but are acting as a "lone wolf" in plotting attacks; and accessing certain business records.
Critics say the provisions amount to an over-reach of authority by the federal government and have been abused. Backers say they have prevented more attacks.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, helped take the lead in winning approval of the bill that would extend the provisions for 88 days, until May 27.
"The House bill we are amending was not the product of bipartisan agreement, or even an open debate in the House," Leahy said. "It would extend the Patriot Act without improvement for the rest of the year."
"I do not begrudge our friends in the House time to do their work, and for the new Republican majority to seek additional time to consider the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act. But it should not take a year to pass improvements to these provisions," Leahy said.
Senator Rand Paul, one of just two Republicans to vote no, made it clear that he sees the expiring provisions as amounting to excessive federal power.
"While I oppose any extension of the Patriot Act ... I do welcome the chance to actually talk about this subject over the next few months," said Paul.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)