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.