Patriot Act upset vote: Can tea party lawmakers, liberals be friends?

Some tea party lawmakers in the House helped to vote down Patriot Act provisions on Tuesday, out of concerns about civil liberties. Surprised, liberals applaud.

Gary Fabiano/Sipa Press/Newscom
The Tea Party held a town hall meeting in the Nation's Capitol so others may meet the conservative leaders. The event was organized by the Tea Party Express and included Senator Paul Rand, Senator Mike Lee, Representative Michele Bachmann, Representative Steve King and guests Senator Orrin Hatch and Congressman Allen West.

Many liberals tag the tea party movement as nativist, potentially racist, and out of step with progressive ideals. But some found themselves giving a nod of approval to tea-party-affiliated members of Congress who voted Tuesday to nix parts of the Patriot Act on grounds that they let the government intrude too much on individual privacy in the name of national security.

"House blocks renewal of Patriot Act. Some of these tea party guys aren't insane after all," tweeted Armon Dadgar, a resident of Kirkland, Wash.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and newcomer Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho were among eight in the Tea Party Caucus to vote against extending certain surveillance measures contained in the Patriot Act, joining with 18 other Republicans and most House Democrats to prevent their reauthorization – at least for now. Liberal Democratic lawmakers, in particular, have long derided parts of the Patriot Act as sacrificing civil liberties.

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Some Washington Democrats painted the upset vote as a failure of the GOP leadership, which seemed unable to corral its members for what ought to have been a routine, slam-dunk vote. Strong national security, after all, has been a Republican mantra since before 9/11. Democrats chuckled, and House Speaker John Boehner (R) lamented, "We can't be perfect every day."

But the vote also shows that some tea-party Republicans are willing to buck GOP orthodoxy to stand up for principles – even if those principles happen to be shared by the likes of liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio, says political scientist Charles Franklin at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Mr. Kucinich called specifically on the Tea Party Caucus in the House to vote down the Patriot Act measures. As it was, 44 of 52 members of the Tea Party Caucus voted to extend the act's domestic spying provisions.

To tea partyers, "words like liberty mean Second Amendment rights, but also ... something like this [Patriot Act issue] – being opposed to too much government intrusion in a variety of areas in your life," says Mr. Franklin.

Democrats and tea party activists still stand far apart on issues ranging from raising the national debt ceiling, how much to cut government spending, and immigration policy. But their pairing up during Tuesday's vote to produce what some have called a "small uprising" points to the tea party movement's determination to install politicians who will put principle ahead of the party line, says Franklin. Though the Patriot Act provisions, which have President Obama's support, are likely to be renewed eventually, the initial "no" vote indicates that strange political bedfellows may indeed manage to shift policy in some unexpected ways.

"Oh, GOP, you want the Tea Party Republicans to just play ball and pass it? How little you understand them," wrote Allen Shull of Henderson, Tenn., on Twitter.

As House Republicans prepared a do-over vote, possibly as soon as Thursday, several tea-party-leaning Republicans, including Idaho's Representative Labrador, explained the basis of their "no" votes on the Patriot Act, saying it gives too much latitude to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to investigate Americans without their knowledge.

“While I agree that law enforcement and national security agencies need the tools necessary to keep America safe from terrorism, when crafting policy we need to be sure we are not infringing upon the protections and freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution,” Labrador said in a prepared statement.

Whatever the reason of the nay vote, the stance of some tea-party-affiliated lawmakers perked up ears in the liberal corners of the blogosphere.

"With a political message that relies heavily on 'Don’t Tread on Me!’ rhetoric – opposing a tyrannical government, insisting on individual liberties, protesting overweening government authority – tea partiers should be surefire opponents of the Patriot Act," wrote Cynthia Tucker, one of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's liberal columnists. "And, yesterday, a few members of Congress with Tea Party support stood up against its renewal. They allied with Democratic opponents of the Patriot Act to block it, at least temporarily. (How many times do you see civil rights icon John Lewis, D-Ga, and John-Birch-loving Paul Broun, R-Ga., in agreement?)"

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