The new House Republican leadership faced its first tea party revolt Wednesday evening when the chamber unexpectedly failed to extend key provisions of the USA Patriot Act, the anti-terror law passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Lawmakers voted 277-148 to approve the extension, but the new GOP leadership had brought the measure to the floor under a special expedited process that required a two-thirds majority to pass. By that standard, the measure fell seven votes shorts.
More than two dozen Republicans, including a number of conservative freshmen members, joined with a large bloc of liberal Democrats in opposing the extension, which would have kept the anti-terror enforcement tools on the books through Dec. 8 as Congress debates a more extensive revision of the bill. Both liberal civil rights groups and conservative libertarians have attacked surveillance and law enforcement provisions of the bill as giving the government too much power.
The measure fell short despite a direct appeal from Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the former Judiciary Committee chairman who helped write the original 2001 bill.
“The terrorist threat has not subsided and will not expire, and neither should our national security laws,” the Wisconsin Republican said.
The Patriot Act bill would have renewed the authority for court-approved roving wiretaps that permit surveillance on multiple phones. Also addressed was Section 215, the so-called “library records” provision that gives the FBI court-approved access to “any tangible thing” relevant to a terrorism investigation.
The third deals with the “lone-wolf” provision of a 2004 anti-terror law that permits secret intelligence surveillance of non-U.S. people not known to be affiliated with a specific terrorist organization.
House GOP leaders, clearly surprised by the level of opposition to the measure, held the voting open for nearly a half-hour past the allotted time in a fruitless attempt to round up more support.
The setback means that Republicans may have to bring the bill back to the floor under regular procedures that only require a majority for passage but allow for amendments. The three provisions will expire on Feb. 28 if the House and Senate can’t agree on how to proceed.
The House had pushed for a nine-month extension to give lawmakers more time to come up with an approach that would give the measures permanent legal status. The Senate is considering longer-range ideas.
The White House, in a statement, said it did not object to the House bill but “would strongly prefer” extending the provisions to the end of 2013, saying that “provides the necessary certainty and predictability that our nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies require.”
Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she was “glad to see there is bipartisan opposition to the Patriot Act 10 years later.” The ACLU is a strong opponent of the three provisions, saying they lack proper and fundamental privacy safeguards.
• This article was based in part on wire service reports.