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House Fails to Extend Parts of Patriot Act in Surprise Vote

  • Cindy Saine

The U.S. House of Representatives has failed to approve an extension of expiring parts of the USA Patriot Act late Tuesday. In a vote that surprised analysts, a number of Republicans supported by the Tea Party voted with a number of Democrats to block the two-thirds majority needed for extension.

The Patriot Act was first passed with broad bipartisan support in 2001, in response to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The law makes it easier for federal authorities to conduct surveillance, including wiretapping of terrorist suspects. Civil libertarians have long fought the act, and some critics say the government has abused its powers by using the law in cases not related to terrorism.

Most Republican lawmakers have supported extensions of the Patriot Act in the past, so experts had expected the Republican-controlled House of Representatives would easily pass the extension of three sections of the Patriot Act. But the vote was 277 in favor of the extensions and 148 against, meaning the measure is blocked.

During the debate Tuesday, one of the Patriot Act's strongest critics, Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, had called on members of the House to vote against extending parts of the law until December, saying the act violates Americans' basic right to privacy.

"What is happening to our country? Why are we giving up our basic liberties? We need to take a stand here, and this is as good a day as any to take a stand," said Kucinich.

Many Republican lawmakers say that there have been several thwarted or failed terrorist plots in the United States in recent years, and that this is not the time to take tools away from law enforcement officials.

Republican Representative Lamar Smith of Texas:

"The Patriot Act works," said Smith. "It has proved effective in preventing in terrorist attacks and protecting Americans. To let these provisions expire would leave every American less safe. We must continue these intelligence gathering measure to win our fight against terrorists."

Representative Kucinich appealed to newly elected Tea Party-supported Republican members of Congress, who champion individual liberties and a limited role for government, to vote against the extension.

"Many members of Congress, including those supported by my friends in the Tea Party, maintain their goal is to get rid of big government, get government out of their lives," he said. "Well how about the Patriot Act, which has the broadest reach and the deepest reach of government into their daily lives?"

Opinion on extending the Patriot Act is divided, even among lawmakers who are affiliated with the Tea Party. Some say that parts of the law might be unconstitutional; others say it is important for national security. Some analysts are likely to see the defeat of the extension of the Patriot Act as a sign of a clash between traditional Republicans and Tea Party supporters on the issue of sacrificing individual liberties for national security.

Several U.S. Senators have introduced three bills to extend portions of the Patriot Act, complicating efforts for a long-term extension.

The Senate will have to consider whether it wants to make major changes to the law as well as if and when parts of the law should be allowed to expire. House Republican leaders will have to consider what their next move will be.