If House Democrats had stuck together in opposition to moves by the Bush administration to reauthorize the worst elements of the Patriot Act, the legislation would have been defeated and a major victory would have been won for civil liberties.
Unfortunately, Democrats did not stick together on Thursday, when the House considered sixteen provisions of the act that are set to expire at the end of the year unless they are reauthorized by Congress.
Following a day-long debate on Thursday, the House voted 257 to 171 to extend, and in some case make permanent, the most controversial provisions of the law that was hastily crafted in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "Now we know the truth. The Patriot Act was never intended as an emergency measure," argued Representative Lynn Woolsey, the California Democrat who has long been an outspoken critic of the law that had its start in former Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department. "It appears the sponsors were always interested in a permanant crackdown on civil liberties."
There was far more opposition in the House this year than was seen in 2001, when the vote for the original version of the Patriot Act was 357-66. But Thursday's House action was a far cry from the vote that should have -- and could have -- been taken to place reasonable limits on the unprecedented powers that the so-called "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT ACT) Act of 2001" gives government agents to seize educational, financial and medical records.
Of the 257 votes cast Thursday for the Bush's administration's version of the Patriot Act, 214 came from Republicans, while 43 came from Democrats -- including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, and Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois representative who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Of the 171 votes against the administration's version of the Patriot Act, 156 came from Democrats, 14 from Republicans and one from Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders.
Had the 43 Democrats who voted with the White House and the Republican leadership instead sided with House Democrats and Republicans who were worried about the threat to civil liberties posed by the Patriot Act, the opposition total would have risen to 214 while support for the measure would have fallen to 214.
On a tie vote, the legislation would not have advanced.
That would have been more than just a setback for the White House's draconian approach to civil liberties. It would have dramatically improved prospects for a bipartisan move by members of the Senate to clean up the Patriot Act. On Thursday, as the House was debating the issue, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously for legislation that would require greater oversight of the Justice Department's role in implementing the act and that would place new restrictions on surveillance and secret searches.
The Senate is divided on the question, however. The chamber's intelligence committee voted in June for a separate bill that would make all provisions of the Patriot Act permanent and give the FBI additional powers to issue subpoenas without the approval of a judge.
The fight will now play out in the Senate, where Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold -- who cast the sole Senate vote against the original version of the Patriot Act -- is a leading for of blanket reauthorization.
While he is still hopeful about prospects that the Senate can pass a better bill and then negotiate changes in the House legislation, Feingold was disappointed by the failure of the House to address the fundamental civil liberties concerns that have been raised by the Bush administration's approach.
"I joined my Senate Judiciary Committee colleagues yesterday in unanimously passing a consensus, bipartisan bill that significantly improves the most controversial provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act," Feingold explained on Friday. "In the House, unfortunately, the outcome has been disappointing. House leadership refused to allow meaningful amendments to come to a vote on the House floor. While some improvements were incorporated, the end result is still a far cry from what Congress owes the American people – meaningful changes to the Patriot Act that will protect innocent people from government surveillance. The Senate Judiciary Committee took the first step in that direction yesterday morning. It's unfortunate that the House was not willing to join us."
It is doubly unfortunate that the administration won a House endorsement for its approach with the support of 43 Democrats, including several such as Hoyer and Emanuel who hold key leadership positions in a party that is supposed to be at least a little bit more committed to defending civil liberties.