Faced with a looming vote on a planned one-year extension of special powers authorized in the USA PATRIOT Act, the Obama White House did not object or propose reforms, as the president vowed to do as a candidate.
The Obama administration instead asked Congress to grant those powers for an additional three years.
As a US Senator and candidate for the presidency, Barack Obama never actually argued for a repeal of the Bush administration’s security initiatives. Instead, he’s consistently argued for enhanced judicial oversight and a pullback on the most extreme elements of the bill, such as the use of National Security Letters to search people’s personal records without a court-issued warrant.
While many in his own party opposed the PATRIOT Act outright, as president Obama has said repeatedly that the emergency measures remain a valuable tool for law enforcement engaged in national security prerogatives.
On Tuesday, ahead of a House vote to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act for another year, the White House did something unexpected: they asked for even more.
A prepared statement issued Tuesday afternoon said that President Obama “would strongly prefer enactment of reauthorizing legislation that would extend these authorities until December 2013.”
The move was likely aimed at avoiding the potential conflation of national security legislation and an election year’s hyper-partisan atmosphere.
The House voted last night 277 to 148 in favor of the single-year PATRIOT Act extension, falling 23 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass it. Some two dozen tea party-backed Republican freshmen ended up joining with a majority of Democrats in voting against it.
The power-shift caught Republican leadership off guard. Even after keeping the 15-minute vote open far longer than the rules permitted, they did not have a two-thirds majority.
Some suggested that the House’s most liberal member, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), might have played a role in the sudden spurt of rebellion. He issued a challenge on Tuesday aimed at Tea Party Caucus members in the House, urging them to join him in standing up for civil liberties by resisting the PATRIOT Act’s extension.
“I am hopeful that members of the Tea Party who came to Congress to defend the Constitution will join me in challenging the reauthorization,” he wrote.
While the brief alliance might not be enough to stave off the extension, as the PATRIOT Act was expected to return after its unexpected defeat, it could be the first inklings of a political common ground between libertarian-leaning tea party Republicans and progressive Democrats, especially since both groups are largely seen as disillusioned with the two-party system and partisan gridlock.
The only significant proposal to reform the PATRIOT Act came from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who proposed last month that Congress add greater judicial oversight to the bill. Leahy’s bill would have also extended the PATRIOT Act’s powers until 2013, shifting the extension away from 2012’s election season.
When the act was first signed into law, “sunset” provisions were employed to quiet the concerns of civil libertarians, who were largely ignored once Congress set about on their successive extensions of the emergency powers.
Unfortunately, the concerns of civil libertarians proved to be well founded, and a 2008 Justice Department report confirmed that the FBI regularly abused their ability to obtain personal records of Americans without a warrant.
The only real sign of strong opposition to the act was in 2005, when a Democratic threat to filibuster its first renewal was overcome by Senate Republicans.
With prior reporting by Daniel Tencer and David Edwards.