The Republican-controlled House defeated a bid to extend for nine months the government’s authority to conduct roving wiretaps of suspected terrorists, along with two other expiring provisions of the Patriot Act counter-terrorism law.
The measure fell short of the votes needed to pass it under streamlined procedures that require approval by two-thirds of those voting. Its leading backer, Rep. Lamar Smith, said he hoped to bring up the legislation in two days under rules allowing passage by a simple majority.
Backing the bill were 277 House members, opposing it were 148. Voting against the extension were 122 Democrats and 26 Republicans. Republicans leaders were unable to get the needed support even as they held open the roll call on the measure for about a half-hour beyond its 15-minute allotted time.
The second provision proposed for extension enables federal agents, with approval from the secret court that supervises counter-intelligence investigations, to obtain any “tangible item” that aids investigations of a suspected plot by foreign-based terrorists.
The third provision authorizes surveillance of so-called lone wolf terrorists unconnected to foreign groups.
All three provisions are set to expire on Feb. 28.
The roving wiretap provision enables agents to obtain a single warrant from the secret court to monitor the phone calls of suspected terrorists who use a series of mobile phones and other communications devices.
It and the “tangible item” provisions are part of the USA Patriot Act, which Congress enacted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to beef up the ability of U.S. law enforcement to monitor suspected terrorists in the U.S. The act’s provisions have been updated and extended since its initial enactment. The overall law is now set to expire in 2013.
The “lone wolf” provision is part of a 2004 law.
Smith, a Texas Republican who heads the House Judiciary Committee, said 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 and save lives.”
Michigan Rep. 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. Sen. 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.
Another proposal by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein of California, favored by the Obama administration, would extend the provisions until 2013 without any modification.
At a Feb. 4 hearing, Feinstein said 2013 is “really 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, 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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