"I am disappointed in the outcome of tonight's vote,"… (Kevin Wolf, AP )
Reporting from Washington — The Republican-led House failed to pass an extension of expiring sections of the Patriot Act on Tuesday, an unexpected setback for GOP leaders that shows the difficulty they face in controlling their majority and its "tea party"-inspired members.
Time is short: Key provisions of the terrorist surveillance law expire at the end of the month. A coalition of veteran conservative Republicans and new GOP lawmakers joined many Democrats in blocking passage of the measure, which many tea party activists see as federal government overreaching into private affairs.
The bill required a two-thirds vote to pass but fell seven votes short. Now, the White House and congressional leaders must devise a new strategy, and fast, or the provisions will lapse Feb. 28. The administration wants to extend the Sept. 11-era provisions through 2013. The House bill would have extended them until Dec. 8.
"I am disappointed in the outcome of tonight's vote," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), author of the original act. "We are now under a time crunch."
With two federal holidays and an accompanying congressional recess, February is a short month for lawmakers. Just seven working days remain, Sensenbrenner said.
The expiring provisions include one giving federal investigators access to a suspect's personal materials — including library records — with a judge's approval. Another enables the government, with a court order, to conduct roving wiretaps of terrorism suspects as they change phones or locations. A third enables authorities to conduct surveillance on foreign terrorism suspects who do not appear to be affiliated with known groups — the "lone wolf" provision.
Supporters say the provisions have thwarted countless acts of terrorism and cannot be allowed to expire.
The House voted 277 to 148 in favor of the extension, falling short of the required two-thirds majority. Twenty-six Republicans opposed the bill, as did 122 Democrats. Sixty-seven Democrats voted in favor.
GOP leaders chose the ill-fated process to avoid amendments that could have ended up restructuring the measure.
Civil libertarians have long opposed the provisions as unwarranted federal surveillance power, a view shared by top congressional Democrats.
Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, on Tuesday called the act "one of the worst laws this body has ever passed."
Tea party activists also object to the law's reach into private affairs.
"There has been much discussion and debate in the organization, and most believe that Congress needs to do the same: Open debate and discussion before renewing," said Mark Meckler, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. The group has not taken a position on the issue.
The House GOP sought an eight-month extension to give leaders time to prepare for an attempt this year to make the law permanent, potentially inserting the national security debate into the presidential campaign season.
The Senate is considering a Democratic-backed bill that would extend the expiring provisions to 2013.
"We should not extend this debate into an election year and risk that some will play politics with our national security," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee.