In a rare rejection of a president's demand for surveillance powers that many believe are in conflict with the Constitution, the House refused Tuesday night to extend sections of the PATRIOT Act that have been decried by civil libertarians.
The extension required a two-thirds vote. But the 277–148 tally fell seven votes short of the necessary number, as most House Democrats voted "no." The dissenters were joined by twenty-six Republicans, some of them veteran dissenters on constitutional issues, some of them Tea Party–tied newcomers.
The vote was a blow to President Obama, who had asked Congress to extend the PATRIOT Act's surveillance authorities—which are due to expire February 28—for three years.
House Republican leaders weren't willing to go that far in removing meaningful Congressional checks and balances on the surveillance authorities that both the Bush and Obama administrations have used to conduct “roving surveillance” of communications, to collect and examine business recordsand to target individuals who are not tied to terrorist groups for surveillance. But they did propose a one-year extension of the authorities.
Most House Republicans—including supposed defenders of the Constitution such as Michigan Congresswoman Michele Bachmann—went along with their leadership. In so doing, they failed to address fundamental concerns, raised by conservatives and liberals, about Patriot Act abuses of the very Constitution that theyread aloud at the opening of the current Congress.
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, led the vast majority of House Democrats in opposing any extension. In all, 122 Democrats—roughly two-thirds of the party's House caucus—voted "no" to extending surveillance authorities that the American Civil Liberties Union warns "give the government sweeping authority to spy on individuals inside the United States and, in some cases, without any suspicion of wrongdoing. All three should be allowed to expire if they are not amended to include privacy protections to protect personal information from government overreach."
Joining the Democrats in voting "no" were 26 Republicans, including Texas Congressman Ron Paul and a number of other senior Republicans with records of breaking with their party on civil liberties issues, such as Tennessee's John Duncan Jr. and South Carolina's Walter Jones Jr. Joining them were several new members of the GOP caucus, such as Illinois Congressman Randy Hultgren and Michigan Congressman Justin Amash.
The vote came Tuesday evening after a heated floor debate, which saw Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, call on members of both parties to obey their oaths to defend the Constitution.
"The PATRIOT Act is a destructive undermining of the Constitution," Kucinich told the House. "How about today we take a stand for the Constitution to say that all Americans should be free from unreasonable search and seizure, and to make certain that the attempt to reauthorize the Patriot Act is beat down."
Against the lobbying of the Obama administration and the determined efforts of House GOP leaders—who kept what was supposed to be a fifteen-minute discussion open for twenty-five minutes as they tried to corral the needed seven votes—Kucinich's argument carried the day.
“The defeat of the reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act, under the suspension of the rules, signals the potential for a new coalition. Twenty-six Republicans joined one hundred and twenty-two Democrats to block passage, forcing a new debate on these critical questions of privacy and civil liberties," Kucinich said Tuesday night.
"It was thought that reauthorization would be non-controversial, which is why it was placed under a suspension of the rules, but the fact that it failed to get the two-thirds vote required indicates that it is controversial. This is a surprising development and it will lead to more debate about the PATRIOT Act. I credit Conservative Republicans, Libertarians and members of the Tea Party for standing by their beliefs and thank my fellow Democrats for providing one of the first major challenges to the PATRIOT Act," Kucinich explained. “It is expected that the bill will be brought up again, but the opposition has now surfaced. I look forward to working with this new coalition to continue to rally support to defeat the PATRIOT Act."
ACLU leaders, celebrating a rare victory in the long fight against the PATRIOT Act, shared Kucinich's excitement about the prospects for blocking—or, at the very least, radically reforming—the measure.
“The House should be commended for refusing to rubberstamp the continuation of these provisions," declared Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. "For the nearly 10 years it has been law, the over-reaching Patriot Act has been abused by law enforcement to violate innocent Americans’ privacy. We urge both the House and the Senate to keep up this momentum and continue to fight the extension of these provisions that put Americans’ privacy at risk.”