WASHINGTON -- Republican leaders in the U.S. House thought they had scheduled on the agenda a noncontroversial bill to reauthorize the USA Patriot Act.
They were wrong.
The legislation, which lowers the threshold for police to search the electronic and personal communications and property of people they suspect of conspiring in terror plots, failed last week by a vote of 277 to 148.
Among 26 Republicans opposing the bill were Tennessee Reps. John Duncan and Phil Roe and North Georgia's Tom Graves.
Duncan said the Homeland Security Department, which was created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is expanding its power daily and is already big enough to handle the nation's security needs.
"I think the federal law enforcement agencies already have plenty of power," Duncan said. "We're getting very close to tipping the balance between liberty and security."
Graves said he believes the act gave too much power to the government, a problem cited by many of the people who helped elect him.
"While I believe the Patriot Act is well intentioned, I share the concern of many of my constituents that the law is in conflict with the Fourth Amendment," he said in a statement. "Certain provisions, namely sections 206 and 215, expand government power to the point where investigations pose an unacceptable risk to the Constitutional rights of innocent American citizens."
Because GOP leaders didn't anticipate much opposition, they initially scheduled the Patriot Act as a suspension vote, which means it needed two-thirds of the chamber to pass instead of the usual 218 votes required under regular order.
"I was a bit surprised that it failed," said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., who said the legislation is needed to protect Americans living in "a very, very dangerous world."
Fleischmann said he's in favor of maintaining civil liberties but thinks the Patriot Act is necessary for public safety -- even if many of his supporters are crying for the government to get off their backs.
"I have heard from an overwhelming number of my constituents to cast an 'aye' vote," Fleischmann said. "I am certainly a strong supporter of civil liberties and will continue to be so."
Republican leaders are now holding off moving the bill further until they can brief freshmen lawmakers on the details of the controversial act.
But all their briefings won't convince Duncan and many other critics.
"I think we're in danger of creating a federal police state if we keep extending and expanding laws like the Patriot Act -- I think it's a very misnamed act, actually," Duncan added.
Contact Matt Laslo at 202-510-4331 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MattLaslo.
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