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.
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."
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.
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.
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.