House Republicans sufferedan embarrassing setback Tuesday when they fell seven votes short of extending provisions of the USA Patriot Act, a vote that served as the first small uprising of the party's tea party bloc.
The bill to reauthorize key parts of the counterterrorism surveillance law that expire at the end of the month required a supermajority to pass under special rules reserved for noncontroversial measures.
But it fell short of the required two-thirds after 26 Republicans bucked their leadership, eight of them freshman lawmakers elected in November's midterm elections. With most Democrats opposing the extension, the final tally was 277 members in favor of extension and 148 opposed.
The Republicans who control the House made plans to bring the measure back for a quick vote later this month under normal rules, requiring only a simple majority for passage. They blamed House Democrats for the bill's downfall, noting that they provided the lion's share of votes against a bill that President Obama supports.
The vote was the latest signal, though, that on certain matters House leaders could face a sizable resistance to compromise from within their own ranks, both from the 87 GOP freshmen and from conservative veterans who have been emboldened by the newcomers.
Earlier Tuesday, House Republicans pulled a bill to extend assistance to workers who lose jobs because of competition from imports. Conservatives had complained that the bill would put the federal government too squarely into the private economy.
And leaders of the Appropriations Committee heard complaints Tuesday from fellow Republicans on the panel that their bill to slash at least $32 billion in fiscal 2011 spending was insufficient.
The Patriot Act measure would have extended through the end of the year three provisions that are set to expire Feb. 28. One authorizes the FBI to use roving wiretaps on surveillance targets; the second allows the government to access "any tangible items," such as library records, in the course of surveillance; and the third allows for the surveillance of targets who are not connected to an identified terrorist group.
Democrats hailed the day's events in a news release from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's office that asked a simple question: "Disarray?"
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), who has presented an occasionally lonely opposition to the Patriot Act, said Tuesday's vote demonstrated that he now had company from more than two dozen Republicans who support the Bill of Rights. "The Patriot Act represents the undermining of civil liberties," Kucinich said after the vote. Republicans "brought [the bill] forward not knowing the votes."
House leaders rejected that analysis.
"Democrats in Congress voted to deny their own administration's request for key weapons in the war on terror," said Erica Elliott, spokeswoman for Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
A large majority of the freshman Republicans did back extension of the law, which President George W. Bush staunchly supported. Even some who wavered eventually decided to vote for the bill.
Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), a freshman who voted yes, said the measure is "going to need some examination going forward, so all I did today is just, hey, instead of making a wrong decision, we're just going to do a little more due diligence to make the very right decision to both protect our security as well as protect the civil liberties of the American people."
"This is just a temporary extension, so the Judiciary Committee can dive a little deeper into the details," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a second-term lawmaker closely aligned with tea party activists. "That seemed fair. I don't want to let it expire without giving it full contemplation."
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who sponsored the extension, told reporters after the vote that opposition had little to do with the particular provisions being considered Tuesday and more to do with other counterterrorism tools that have received scrutiny. "People didn't understand it," he said. "A lot of the complaints that we heard were about sections [of the law] not in this bill."
The White House said in a statement Tuesday that it "does not object" to extending the three Patriot Act provisions until December.
It added, however, that the administration "would strongly prefer" an extension until December 2013, noting that the longer timeline "provides the necessary certainty and predictability" thatlaw enforcement agencies require while at the same time ensuring that Congress can continue to review the law's effectiveness.
The Senate is considering three competing timelines, in addition to the House legislation. Among them are proposals that would permanently extend the three provisions or extend them through 2013.