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The Politics of the PATRIOT Act

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By any conventional legislative calculus, it was a stomping. On Monday night, the House Republican leadership successfully passed provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act with a comfortable margin of support. The bill’s three PATRIOT Act surveillance powers, which were set to expire at the end of this month, were extended until December 8th by a vote of 275 to 144. 27 Republicans joined 117 Democrats to oppose the measure.

Beyond the headline numbers, however, the story is a bit more interesting. Last week, the Republican leadership tried, and failed, to pass the bill under “fast-track” House rules which require a 2/3rd vote for passage. Speaker Boehner and the party whips had surmised that Republican defections on the PATRIOT Act vote wouldn’t exceed the single-digit numbers from last year’s reauthorization. They figured wrong.

What Congressional leadership hadn’t counted on was the increasingly assertive libertarian and tea party wing within the Republican caucus, and how these legislators might not be willing to march in lockstep when it comes to certain party orthodoxies. In past years, Republican leaders have enjoyed near unanimity in their ranks on questions of civil liberties and national security. Today, there is growing divide among grassroots activists and Republican legislators on these issues. Increasingly, Representatives like Justin Amash (R-MI), Tom McClintock (R-CA), Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA), Walter Jones (R-NC), and John Duncan (R-TN) are departing from their party bosses on principle, and are emerging as leaders of the constitutionalist wing of the party.

Do we see the beginnings of a substantial rift within the Republican Congressional caucus on such questions? Perhaps it is too early to tell. We do know these civil liberty issues aren’t going away for the 112th Congress. The US Senate will be voting on its own PATRIOT Act bill this month, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has declared his steadfast opposition to the measure. Additionally, both chambers will have to vote on it later this year when these provisions are again set to expire in December.

During the floor debate Monday and last week, proponents such as Rep. James Sensenbrenner argued that the responsible course was to vote for reauthorization so that the bill could be worked on for the balance of the year in committee. Should the PATRIOT Act come up for a vote later this year, again without amendment, the bill’s apologists won’t have as nearly as easy a sell.

In that case, the House leadership may have more than a brief embarrassment on its hands.
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David Williams is chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of North Carolina and also serves on the NC Republican Party’s executive committee. He graduated cum laude from Rhodes College with a degree in economics, and is currently a law student at Charlotte School of Law.

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