For Speaker of the House John Boehner, who once suggested to his new tea party compatriots that they would need to act like "adults" on tough votes such as raising the debt ceiling, what should have been a routine roll call turned into possibly the first concrete evidence that his caucus may be more unruly than he imagined.
The majority party came up seven votes short of keeping alive three provisions set to expire at the end of the month. Tuesday's 277-148 vote came under special rules normally reserved for measures deemed to be noncontroversial.
The vote "disappointed" Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the former Judiciary Committee chairman who introduced the Patriot Act soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to give law enforcement sweeping powers of surveillance aimed at thwarting future terrorist plots. He said time was running out to bring the measures back for a simple majority vote open to extended debate and amendments.
The soon-to-expire provisions:
- Allow roving wiretaps of terrorism suspects who change phones or locations.
- Authorize the government access with a court order to "any tangible thing" related to a suspect, including library records.
- Enable authorities to conduct secret surveillance on "lone wolf" suspects who are not affiliated with a known terrorist group.
Among the Republicans objecting to extending the measures were libertarian Rep. Ron Paul and eight tea party freshmen. They included Bobby Schilling, an Illinois pizza parlor owner who favors smaller government, and Justin Amash, a Palestinian-American from Michigan who has "serious reservations" related to protecting civil liberties.
"The breadth of the provisions raises serious Fourth Amendment concerns in my mind, and I cannot support them as currently written," Amash said.
Considering that Rep. Michele Bachmann and others in her tea party caucus voted for the extensions, the defections hardly amount to a full-scale rebellion.
Bachmann may be obsessed with the Constitution but, "Some tea party leaders want to give a complete pass on anything national security or defense-related," said ACLU Washington Legislative Director Laura Murphy. "We're urging people to be consistent."
Still, said Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford, the unexpected setback "sends a signal to Boehner, if he didn't already know it, that he's going to have to navigate some difficult shoals at times" with "purist types" who "will be willing to go over the cliff with flag waving and not worry about the consequences."
If some Republicans chose principle over party on the Patriot Act, others fit in with the findings of a Public Religion Research Institute survey that showed "rank-and-file tea party constituents are highly selective in their libertarianism, despite the rhetoric of some tea party elites," said the group's Robert Jones, a tea party expert.
He notes that nearly half of those identifying with the movement also identify with the Christian Right, "and on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, they are not civil libertarians but social conservatives."
While the survey did not ask specifically about the Patriot Act, tea party supporters are more hawkish when it comes to national security and defense issues. Nearly two-thirds, for instance, disagree that torture can never be used on suspected terrorists. Americans overall are more evenly divided on the controversial issue.
Rather than champion libertarian positions that protect individual rights, on security, tea party supporters are more likely to lean toward "fairly statist positions that might threaten individual rights," Jones said.
He suggested that Republican House members who voted "no" on Tuesday may have objected more on procedural than substantive libertarian grounds to how the legislation was brought swiftly to the floor under suspended rules.
GOP leadership aides downplayed the significance of the defections. Going rogue on the Patriot Act, they suggested, provides few clues to how members will vote on spending and other measures.
They focused instead on the 122 Democrats who voted against President Barack Obama, who favored the extension. They include 36 Democrats, including party leaders like Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who switched their positions after voting for the same provisions in the then-Democratically controlled House last year.
"Democrats in Congress voted to deny their own administration's request for key weapons in the war on terror," said Erica Elliott, spokeswoman for House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.
"This lack of party-line orthodoxy is not a surprise to us, and we're very excited about it," said the ACLU's Murphy, adding that her organization has "enjoyed a very respectful relationship" with Ron Paul.
Murphy surmised that GOP leaders wrongly assumed clear sailing based on last year's vote. What they didn't count on was more switched votes by angry liberal Democrats also miffed that the provisions were being pushed through without hearings or a chance to propose amendments.
The White House and Senate Democratic leaders prefer extending the surveillance provisions for three years, until the end of 2013. That would put it beyond the presidential campaign season and deprive GOP hopefuls a cudgel in debates over national security.
Whenever the Patriot Act returns to the House floor, Brookings Institution political analyst Thomas Mann said Tuesday's vote served its purpose.
"I wouldn't make too much of it. It will get done eventually," he said. "This was a relatively low-cost way for some Republicans to show some independence. It will get more complicated and difficult as we move to fiscal matters."
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