The House of Representatives failed Tuesday to extend the life of three surveillance tools that are crucial to the United States' post-Sept. 11 anti-terror law, a slipup for the new Republican leaders who miscalculated the level of opposition.
The House voted 277-148 to keep the three provisions of the USA Patriot Act on the books until Dec. 8. Republicans brought up the bill under a special expedited procedure that required a two-thirds majority, and the vote was seven short of reaching that level.
The Republicans, who took over the House last month, lost 26 of their own members, adding to the 122 Democrats who voted against it. Supporters say the three measures are vital to preventing another terrorist attack like those on Sept. 11, 2001, but critics say they infringe on civil liberties. They appealed to the antipathy that newer and more conservative Republicans hold for big government invasions of individual privacy.
The Patriot Act bill would have renewed the authority for court-approved roving wiretaps that permit surveillance on multiple phones. Also addressed was Section 215, the so-called library records provision, which gives the FBI court-approved access to "any tangible thing" relevant to a terrorism investigation.
The third deals with the "lone-wolf" provision of a 2004 anti-terror law that permits secret intelligence surveillance of non-U.S. people not known to be affiliated with a specific terror organization.
Among the 26 Republicans against the extension were seven freshman lawmakers backed by the Tea Party movement, whose members have said the Patriot Act intrudes on every-day life, NBC News reported. They are David Schweikert of Arizona, Tom Graves of Georgia, Raul Labrador of Idaho, Randy Hultgren and Bobby Schilling of Illinois, Justin Amash of Michigan and Christopher Gibson of New York. An eighth first-term Republican, Michael Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, joined them.
The Republican-controlled House was expected to favor the nine-month extension.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the former Judiciary Committee chairman who authored the 2001 Patriot Act, urged his colleagues to support the extensions, saying they were needed as a stopgap until permanent statutes could be agreed upon.
"The terrorist threat has not subsided and will not expire, and neither should our national security laws," he said.
But Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich said Republican supporters of the ultraconservative tea party movement should show their opposition to big government by joining Democrats in opposing the measure.
"How about the Patriot Act, which has the broadest reach and the deepest reach of government to our daily lives?" he asked.
The House could vote again on an extension under regular procedures that would require just a simple majority to pass.
The Obama administration earlier Tuesday urged Congress to extend the tools for nearly three years while Senate Republicans urged them to become permanent.
The White House said that while it would support the nine-month extension proposed by House Republicans, it would "strongly prefer" that they be re-authorized through December 2013.
"This approach would ensure appropriate congressional oversight by maintaining a sunset, but the longer duration provides the necessary certainty and predictability that our nation's intelligence and law enforcement agencies require," the White House said in a statement.
An aide for Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee had said a nine-month extension would provide time for new lawmakers to get up to speed on the issue and for the panel to discuss fully the usefulness of the techniques.
The Senate is considering longer-range ideas.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, introduced legislation last month that would extend the three provisions through 2013 while improving oversight of intelligence-gathering tools. Leahy also would phase out, at the end of 2013, the use of national security letters, FBI demands for information that do not need a judge's approval.
The Senate also has on its legislative calendar a bill by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein that would reauthorize the three measures through 2013 and a Republican proposal that would make them permanent.
The White House, in a statement, said it did not object to the House bill but "would strongly prefer" extending the provisions to the end of 2013, saying that "provides the necessary certainty and predictability that our nation's intelligence and law enforcement agencies require."
Leahy, who introduced a nearly identical bill last year that the Senate did not take up, said in December that he had received a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder saying the Justice Department was implementing several oversight and civil liberties measures included in his legislation.
Those included requirements that the government show relevance to an authorized investigation when seeking library or bookseller records, and similarly that the FBI show that information it is seeking with a national security letter is relevant to an investigation.
Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she was "glad to see there is bipartisan opposition to the Patriot Act 10 years later." The ACLU is a strong opponent of the three provisions, saying they lack proper and fundamental privacy safeguards.