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By Adriel Bettelheim January 6, 2008
By Ryan Kelly January 6, 2008

He fought to improve it, then voted for it

Sen. Hillary Clinton, trying to retrieve momentum after losing the Iowa caucuses, went after Sen. Barack Obama in a Jan. 5, 2008, debate in New Hampshire and charged him with being a flip-flopper.

"You've changed positions within three years on ... a range of issues that you put forth when you ran for the Senate," Clinton said. "You said you would vote against the Patriot Act, then you came to the Senate, you voted for it."

Clinton questioned how serious Obama is about scrapping the 2001 antiterrorism law, noting that he voted to extend it in early 2006 after pledging as a Senate candidate to scrap or replace the law.

A closer examination reveals that while Clinton's charge is technically correct, Obama went further than she did in trying to expand civil rights guarantees and give Democrats more chances to change the law.

As a candidate for the Senate in 2003, Obama said he supported repealing or replacing the Patriot Act, branding it "shoddy and dangerous" in a response to a National Organization for Women survey of candidates. Obama never got a clear-cut opportunity to make good on the pledge, but was active during a debate in late 2005 and early 2006 on reauthorizing 16 expiring provisions in the law.

House and Senate negotiators had deadlocked for months on whether to include more protections for civil liberties and to impose time limits on some of the most contentious provisions in the sweeping law. After consultations with the White House, Republican chief negotiators presented a compromise that won enough Democratic support to reauthorize the act.

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However, Obama and 29 fellow Democrats along with one independent voted against limiting debate in an effort to allow Russ Feingold, D-Wis., the only senator to vote against the original law in 2001, to offer amendments that would have, among other things, put in place stronger judicial reviews of administration actions. It also imposed shorter time limits on so-called "sneak-and-peek" searches, in which law enforcement secretly enters a suspect's premises without the suspect's knowledge or permission.

Clinton, in contrast, joined 14 fellow Democrats and all of the Senate's 55 Republicans in voting to shut off debate and proceed to a final vote on the compromise.

Once Obama's faction lost the bid to keep the debate going, he voted for the compromise. The final tally was 95-4. Clinton was also among those senators voting yes.

Obama said the final deal was not ideal but was an improvement over earlier Republican proposals. "This compromise does modestly improve the Patriot Act by strengthening civil liberties protections without sacrificing the tools that law enforcement needs to keep us safe," he said, adding, "I urge my colleagues to continue working on ways to improve the civil liberties protections in the Patriot Act after it is reauthorized."

So while Obama did vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act, he did so after working to improve the law by expanding civil rights guarantees. We rule Clinton's statement Half True.

Our Sources

Debate transcript, Democratic debate in New Hampshire, Jan. 5, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama, Statement on the Conference Report on the Patriot Act Reauthorization, Dec. 15, 2005

Sen. Hillary Clinton, Statement on the Conference Report on the Patriot Act Reauthorization, Dec. 16, 2005

Sen. John Sununu, Version of the Patriot Act Reauthorization

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Floor statement in opposition of cloture on S.2271, Feb. 28, 2006

Sen. Barack Obama, Statement on the Sununu version of the Patriot Act Reauthorization, Feb. 16, 2006

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He fought to improve it, then voted for it

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