Patriot Act Extension Fails


By Lisa Mascaro
Tribune Washington Bureau

February 8, 2011,

 

WASHINGTON — The Republican-led House on Tuesday failed to pass a short-term extension of the USA Patriot Act favored by GOP leaders, an unexpected political setback that shows the difficulty the party faces in keeping control of their new majority, with its legion of tea party-inspired members.

Key provisions of the terrorist surveillance law expire at the end of the month, and a coalition of veteran Republican lawmakers and conservative new members blocked passage of a measure that many tea party activists see as federal government over-reach into private affairs.

The unexpected turn of events will require the White House, which is seeking to extend the Sept. 11-era bill through 2013, to work with congressional leaders to devise a new strategy for passage.

“I am disappointed in the outcome of tonight’s vote,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the author of the original act. “We are now under a time crunch.”

The House voted 277-148 under a process that required a two-thirds vote, ending up seven votes short. Twenty-six Republicans voted against the bill. Democrats were divided, with 67 voting in favor and 122 against.

GOP leaders chose the ill-fated process to avoid amendments that could have ended up restructuring the measure.

The measure would have renewed three key provisions of the Patriot Act. Civil libertarians have long opposed the provisions as unwarranted federal surveillance power, a view shared by top congressional Democrats.

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, called the act Tuesday “one of the worst laws this body has ever passed.”

But with the dozens of new Republicans in Congress, opponents also are coming from the political right as tea party activists object to the law’s reach into private affairs.

“There has been much discussion and debate in the organization and most believe that Congress needs to do the same: open debate and discussion before renewing,” said Mark Meckler, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, whose group has not taken a position on the issue.

The House GOP sought an eight month extension to give leaders time to prepare to for an attempt later this year to make the law permanent, potentially inserting the national security debate into the unfolding presidential campaign season.

The Senate is considering a Democratic-backed bill that would extend the expiring provisions to 2013.

“We should not extend this debate into an election year and risk that some will play politics with our national security,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Among the three provisions expiring Feb. 28, one allows federal investigators access to a suspect’s personal materials — including library records — with a judge’s approval.

Another enables the government, with a court order, to conduct roving wiretaps of suspected terrorists as they change phones or locations.

A third is known as the “lone-wolf” provision that enables authorities to conduct surveillance on foreign terrorism suspects who do not appear to be affiliated with known groups.

Critics say a permanent extension of the act, as is being sought by Republican leaders in the House and Senate, would make it less likely the law would be routinely reviewed by Congress.

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