GOP finds politics of Patriot Act tricky

Failed renewal came as surprise

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House Republicans lost their first vote of the year this week on a measure to extend the USA Patriot Act after failing to count noses within their own caucus and shedding the support of dozens of Democrats who voted against the very same provisions they approved a year ago when they were in charge.

The vote was a lesson in political opportunism, but also highlighted the challenge Republicans face being in the majority and the freedom Democrats enjoy in being able to vote without the pressure of delivering on behalf of President Obama, who had asked them to embrace the provisions.

Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist, said House Democrats are adjusting from being a majority party responsible for “helping to ensure the safety of American families to a minority with the political mission to regain power.”

The same measure sailed through the Democrat-controlled House on a 315-97 vote last year.

But when the new GOP majority tried to fast-track a proposal to keep key provisions of the law on the books through Dec. 8, they fell seven votes shy of the support required to pass it.

The next day, House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said the vote was emblematic of the philosophical divisions within the new Republican majority, after more than two dozen members of the GOP, including some conservative freshmen, opposed the measure.

“Apparently, they were surprised by it,” Mr. Hoyer said. “I don’t think they expected to lose the votes they lost.”

But the outcome was determined just as much by more than 30 Democrats who switched their position on the issue by casting their votes against the proposed extension.

Reps. Charles B. Rangel of New York, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, and James E. Clyburn, the assistant minority leader from South Carolina, were among those to change their stance. All of them say they want a full review of the law, before it is renewed.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, who also switched positions, aired a similar argument on the House floor Thursday, saying the “voice of the people should assure that the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure has not been violated.”

Last year, Mrs. Jackson Lee also expressed reservations about the bill, but ultimately voted for it.

“I hope that we will rise to vote for this extension of the Patriot Act to allow this Congress … to sit down and do its work,” she said at the time.

It wasn’t just Democrats on Tuesday that switched the way they voted. A handful of Republicans also opposed the measure, including Rep. Paul R. Broun of Georgia.

“In the 111th Congress, I voted for the temporary extension of the Patriot Act in the hope that we could address my concerns regarding Fourth Amendment rights in the new majority,” said Mr. Broun, reciting a concern shared by many Democrats. “Clearly that is not the case, and I will not be supportive of any future extensions until that changes.”

Congress passed the USA Patriot Act in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and it has stayed on the books despite concerns that it grants the federal government too much power and despite Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge to curb the worst abuses of the war on terrorism.

The Patriot Act bill would have renewed the authority for court-approved roving wiretaps that permit surveillance on multiple phones, the seizure of certain business records and the monitoring of suspected “lone-wolf” terrorists. The provisions are set to expire later this month.

Though the bill won a strong majority of the chamber in the 277-148 vote, it failed to pass because House GOP leaders tried to push the bill under special fast-track rules that require a two-thirds vote. Republicans tried to get the effort back on track Thursday by taking the first step to enact rules that would require only a majority vote to extend the Patriot Act, which then would almost certainly pass.

Democrats, meanwhile, continued to demand that Republicans send the bill through the normal committee process so lawmakers can investigate whether the powers are still needed or need to be tweaked.

“We have the right to have a voice,” Mrs. Jackson Lee said. “That voice has already been expressed by both sides of the aisle — both Republicans and Democrats — who voted this down because of the lack of opportunity to engage on behalf of the people. What more needs to be said?”

Rep. David Dreier, California Republican, countered by saying Democrats had an entire year to figure out whether the provisions were being misused or should expire.

“I wonder why there were not hearings held during that one-year period of time,” he said.

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