Patriot Act Amendment Fails In House
by Susan Milligan
WASHINGTON — House Republicans yesterday beat back what was shaping up as a successful attempt to rewrite a controversial provision of the USA Patriot Act, by more than doubling the time usually alloted for a floor vote so that House leaders could persuade enough fellow Republicans to change their votes and the outcome. The reversal spared the White House a legislative defeat.
As the official 15-minute voting period finished, the House appeared to have approved by a 213-206 vote an amendment that would have required law enforcement to go to a regular court — instead of a secret court — to get permission to demand library and Internet access records of people it is investigating. The amendment, offered by Representative Bernard Sanders, Independent of Vermont, was meant to tighten rules that even initial supporters of the Patriot Act now say gave too much search and seizure authority to the government.
But House Republican leaders, determined to keep intact a counterterrorism law passed a month after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, extending the voting time to 38 minutes while they won over enough Republicans to bring the vote to 210-210. The amendment died on the tie vote.
Democrats and a few Republicans — already angry at the unprecedented, three-hour vote Republicans held last year to get the Medicare prescription drug bill approved — yelled “Shame! Shame!” in the chamber and denounced the tactic as an abuse of democratic procedures.
“It’s a national embarrassment. They have turned this place into a laughingstock,” said Representative James McGovern, Democrat of Worcester. Representative Bill Delahunt, Democrat of Quincy, suggested wryly that the United Nations needs to send in election observers to monitor the House.
Democrats and Republicans, when each party controlled the floor, have over the years used parliamentary procedures to get votes to go their way. In 1987, when then-House Speaker Jim Wright, Democrat of Texas, briefly adjourned the House to give himself time to wrangle one more vote on a budget bill, Representative Dick Cheney of Wyoming lashed out at Wright in the media.
“He’s a heavy-handed son of a bitch and he doesn’t know any other way to operate, and he will do anything he can to win at any price. There is no sense of comity left,” Cheney was quoted in the National Journal as saying at the time.
But the current leadership, enjoying one-party rule in Washington, has been particularly disciplined in scheduling votes and lobbying members to prevail on legislation. Usually, the House leaders simply will not allow a bill or amendment on the floor if they realize they will lose, but in some cases, Republican leaders have held votes open to change minds. The Medicare vote last year is the most noted example; House leaders held it open until after 6 a.m., badgering fellow Republicans for three hours until enough changed their votes to approve the bill.
“It’s obvious what happened. They lost the vote,” said C.L. “Butch” Otter, an Idaho Republican who supported the Sanders amendment. Otter, who was among those who switched his vote last year to approve the Medicare bill, said, “I was one of those guys. I know how it feels.”
Representative Tom Tancredo, Republican of Colorado, said he switched his vote on the Patriot Act amendment after Republican leaders approached him and produced a letter from the Justice Department warning that Al Qaeda sympathizers have used the Internet to communicate.
The letter, addressed to House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, provided few specifics in stating: “You should know that we have confirmed that as recently as this past winter and spring, a member of a terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda used Internet services provided by a public library. . . to communicate with his confederates.”
John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, said the amendment would have weakened the fight against terrorism and that the roll call was extended only to give more time to members who had not cast their votes. In fact, at least eight members switched their votes during the extended period, according to other members who were monitoring the voting.
The Patriot Act passed overwhelmingly in October 2001, with even the most ardent civil liberties advocates in both parties approving it. But since then, some lawmakers have said the law goes too far. “Everybody was panicked. We wanted to do something quickly, so we did it,” said House Minority Whip Steney Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland.