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A tea party message in Patriot Act defeat: We're about more than taxes

Several tea party freshmen in the House were part of a successful bid to defeat an extension of the Patriot Act. It shows how the tea party could challenge GOP unity on issues beyond the budget – from civil liberties to free trade.

By Staff writer / February 9, 2011

Is the tea party now an ally of liberal Democrat Rep. Dennis Kucinich? A failed vote to extend the Patriot Act Tuesday showed some unexpected rifts in the GOP that have been exacerbated by the tea party movement.

Harry Hamburg/AP/File

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The role of eight House newcomers, some of them with links to the tea party, in defeating an extension to the Patriot Act Tuesday is a first real hint that the grass-roots movement can complicate GOP unity on issues beyond the budget, such as immigration and free trade.

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The extension, which would have allowed, among other things, the FBI to check citizens' library records as part of terror investigations, failed for several reasons. Some Republicans were angry at their own leadership's attempt to fast-track the bill. But the vote also highlights how elements of the GOP at odds with party orthodoxy have been augmented and emboldened by the tea party success last November.

On Tuesday, for example, the new, more conservative House also pulled from the floor a bill that extended trade benefits to several South American countries and voted to continue a program that helps workers who lose jobs to offshoring retrain for new ones.

The moves point to a House Republican leadership still struggling to come to grips with its own rank and file – and the influence of the tea party is a part of that, say experts.

"Anybody who listened to tea party people around the country has no excuse for being surprised that tea party Republicans voted against" the Patriot Act, says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "How it will now play out is a little bit unclear, but the budget, the debt extension, the South Korean trade agreement might be other issues, and also where these kinds of liberty issues come up where liberty-oriented conservatives don't see it as a political peg but they really do oppose government intrusion into private lives."

Strange bedfellows

The failure of the two-thirds vote – with 26 Republicans joining 122 Democrats to vote against it – fractured GOP unity on a key national-security issue and put a faction of the conservative House in line with liberals like Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio, who urged the tea party movement to stay true to its ideals by defeating laws like the Patriot Act that give government the "deepest reach into our everyday lives."

"This was the first test of the vote-counting abilities of the House GOP leadership. And either they knew this was going to go down and wanted to make a point, or they were surprised, which means their job in keeping their caucus in line is going to be as tough as the so-called 'Conventional Wisdom' crowd has been predicting," writes NBC News' First Read blog.

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