House Republicans failed to muster the votes needed to extend for nine months the government’s authority to conduct roving wiretaps of suspected terrorists, along with two other expiring sections of counter-terrorism law.
The measure fell short yesterday of the two-thirds majority needed under the streamlined procedures used by Republican leaders. The vote marked the first time since the party took control of the chamber last month that House Speaker John Boehner wasn’t able to deliver the votes to pass legislation.
Today, Boehner and other Republican leaders blamed Democrats, citing the “no” votes of 36 members from that party who voted last year to extend the provisions until Feb. 28.
“We are not going to be perfect every day but if the Democrats who had voted for these same provisions last year would have voted for them this year, it would have passed,” Boehner said.
During today’s lunch at the White House, Republican leaders plan to raise the Democratic defections with President Barack Obama, whose administration wants the provisions extended for three years, Majority Leader Eric Cantor told reporters.
Those Democrats “are not serious” because “this is needed for law enforcement,” Cantor said.
Republicans used the streamlined procedure because “we needed to meet the deadline” to pass the legislation, Cantor told reporters.
Representative Lamar Smith, the measure’s leading backer, said he hoped to bring it up again later this week under rules allowing passage by a simple majority.
The bill was supported by 277 House members, while 148 opposed it. Voting against the extension were 122 Democrats and 26 Republicans, including more than half a dozen Republican freshmen.
The Republicans leaders weren’t able to get the needed support even as they held the roll call open for about a half hour beyond its 15-minute allotted time.
Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House’s second-ranking Democrat, said the split among Republicans on the anti-terror law shows the new majority will have “a very difficult challenge in their party” as it seeks support to raise the government’s borrowing authority later this year.
Boehner has pledged to have an “adult conversation” with new Republican lawmakers about the need to raise the borrowing limit. “We’ll see if in fact Mr. Boehner’s ‘adult moment’ is met by adults,” Hoyer said.
The roving wiretap provision enables federal agents to obtain a single warrant, from the secret court that supervises counter-intelligence investigations, to monitor the phone calls of suspected terrorists who use a series of mobile phones and other communications devices.
The second provision proposed for extension allows agents, with approval from the secret court, to obtain any “tangible item” that aids investigations of a suspected plot by foreign- based terrorists. It is known as the library records provision.
The third provision authorizes surveillance of so-called lone-wolf terrorists unconnected to foreign groups.
The first two provisions are part of the USA Patriot Act, which Congress enacted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to boost law enforcement’s ability to monitor suspected terrorists in the U.S. The act’s provisions have been updated and extended since then, and the overall law is set to expire in 2013.
The “lone wolf” provision is part of a 2004 law.
Smith, a Texas Republican who leads the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that extending the provisions until Dec. 8 would give “time for an open and meaningful debate, while ensuring that our law enforcement and intelligence communities can continue to prevent attacks.”
Michigan Representative John Conyers, the judiciary panel’s ranking Democrat, said he opposed the extensions because they would “authorize extraordinarily intrusive acts by the executive branch.” Conyers called the Patriot Act “one of the worst laws this body has ever passed.”
In the Democratic-controlled Senate, lawmakers are pushing for a lengthier extension. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, is sponsoring a bill to extend the provisions to 2013 with additional congressional oversight.
‘Make Some Decisions’
At a Feb. 4 hearing, Feinstein said 2013 is “the time to look at the entire act and make some decisions” about “whether there should be reforms” or changes.
The Obama administration, in a statement of its position on the House measure before yesterday’s vote, said it would “strongly prefer” Feinstein’s legislation because “the longer duration provides the necessary certainty and predictability that our nation’s intelligence and law-enforcement agencies require as they continue to protect our national security.”
Still, “the administration does not object” to the House measure, the statement said.
Leahy said in a statement before the House vote that “it should not take an entire year to pass improvements to these provisions, which we should have adopted last year.” He urged Congress not to “extend this debate into an election year and risk that some will play politics with our national security.”
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