Deserting and embarrassing their GOP House leadership, 26 Republicans--including several members of the Tea Party Caucus--bolted Tuesday night to join Democrats in a surprise rejection of a centerpiece of Bush-era powers to fight terrorism that curbed American civil liberties.
The House Republican leaders had expected an easy victory in their efforts to reauthorize three expiring powers under the PATRIOT Act--among them, allowing ''roving wiretaps'' and searches of people's medical, banking, and library records. It is likely the GOP will succeed in a later vote, but Tuesday night's rebuff sent a strong message.
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By a 277-148 margin, the bill fell just shy of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the House under suspension of the rules, representing somewhat of an embarrassment for House Republicans on a matter of national security. Republicans were accusing Democrats, many of whom had supported the extension of the provisions in the 111th Congress, of hypocrisy.
"I am surprised that so many Democrats who supported an extension of these very same provisions last Congress suddenly changed their votes," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas. "President Obama supports a reauthorization of these important national security tools. And the House bill provides Congress with the opportunity to engage in a thorough review of the provisions as we consider a longer reauthorization. It's unfortunate that partisan politics seems to have prevented so many Democrats from doing what's best for America's national security."
GOP aides, however, were pointing the finger at House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. Aides said McCarthy failed to whip the vote, which led to the embarrassment of the bill falling short and leaders being caught off guard.
Smith expects to bring the bill back to the House floor later this week, according to his spokeswoman.
What was at stake were key privacy provisions of Americans that were amended following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The 26 Republicans, including eight freshmen, were joined by 122 Democrats in opposition to the bill.
In a statement released on Monday, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said he was counting on tea party support to help defeat the extension.
"The 112th Congress began with a historic reading of the U.S. Constitution. Will anyone subscribe to the First and Fourth Amendments tomorrow when the PATRIOT Act is up for a vote? I am hopeful that members of the tea party who came to Congress to defend the Constitution will join me in challenging the reauthorization," Kucinich said.
The bill would reauthorize three expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act until December 8. The provisions are set to expire at the end of the month if Congress does not act.
The provisions give the government the ability to use roving wiretaps to monitor the communications of suspects; obtain special court orders forcing businesses, libraries and banks to turn over records; and conduct surveillance on a so-called "lone wolf," someone who is not knowingly associated with terrorists.
The Senate still needs to pass companion legislation. Three competing bills have been introduced in that chamber.
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