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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.

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Passed in 2001, the Patriot Act dramatically restructured the nation's security apparatus and gave new powers to Washington to observe American citizens and noncitizens under a sharper lens in an effort to block the kind of security failures that led to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

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Tuesday night's vote blocked a bid to renewed authority for court-approved roving wiretaps, as well as a provision that allows the FBI to inspect library records and any other "tangible" thing directly relevant to a terrorism investigation. The failed bill also included extension of a "lone wolf" provision that allowed extra surveillance of noncitizens without known affiliations to terror groups.

The desertion of 26 Republicans may merely be a procedural hiccup. Many were veteran lawmakers who balked at passing the bill without a full and thorough reading. Even among the Tea Party Caucus, 44 of 52 members backed the bill. Efforts to regroup and lobby for the passage will now intensify ahead of a Feb. 28 renewal deadline.

But the underlying message – that new Republicans will vote against what they perceive to be a procedural injustice or the overreach of government power – shows how the calculus on Capitol Hill might be changing in unexpected ways.

"2010 brought in a more heterogeneous mix of Republicans than we're used to ... but I think the broader picture, not just to pigeonhole it as only tea party, is that this new GOP class really is not, at least yet, your standard-issue Washington Republicans," says Mr. Franklin.

Other tea party issues

For instance, two of President Obama's State of the Union vows – trade agreements and immigration reform – could be shaped by a tea party-influenced Congress, not always in predictable ways.

On trade, for example, tea party activists strongly oppose open-border trade agreements that have found favor in both the Democratic and Republican establishment over the past two decades. In a Wall Street Journal poll in November, 61 percent of tea partyers said trade agreements have hurt the United States compared with 53 percent of the general public who said the same thing.

Such trade sentiments also extend to support of pro-US manufacturing trade policies, which bucks general libertarian principles that oppose government picking winners and losers in the economy through subsidies.

While libertarians have pushed an "open border" policy and many in the Republican establishment have sought ways to enact a partial amnesty for illegal immigrants currently in the US, the tea party movement has taken an increasingly strong stand against amnesty and for protecting American workers by stanching the flow of illegal immigrants.

"The immigration issue will be as big as healthcare," predicted Javier Manjarres, a Florida tea party activist, to New American Media last year.

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