The first leg of a process to renew the controversial US Patriot Act failed in the House of Representatives here in Washington DC on Tuesday night.
A required two-thirds majority was not achieved on the floor of the chamber.
The bill is likely to be reintroduced on another occasion but it is a blow to the new Republican leadership in the US House.
During the debate the arguments for and against were vigorous. This from Republican Congressman Lamar Smith from Texas: “The Patriot Act works – it has proved effective in preventing terrorist attacks and protecting Americans. To let these provisions expire would leave every American less safe.”
And this from Republican congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin: “The terrorist threat has not subsided and will not expire and neither should our national security laws.”
It had been assumed the House would easily signal approval for the security agencies to go on accessing without court permission the business, financial, phone and email records of anyone suspected of links with terrorist groups.
Foreign individuals and entities are the main target but the act can affect the privacy of all Americans.
The so-called Lone Wolves who operate outside known terror organisations are also targeted in the bill.
The Patriot Act – originally signed into law by president George Bush immediately after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington – has traditionally been criticised by liberals and libertarians who fear it’s powers rob Americans of rights guaranteed them under the US constitution.
Dennis Kucinich, the Democratic congressman from Ohio, appealed to the House: “What’s happening in our country? Why are we giving up our freedoms? We need to take a stand here and today’s as good as any.”
While Republican congressman Ron Paul from Texas said : “We should really question why we’re extending this? We’re extending the worst parts! Why were they sunsetted? Because people had concerns about them?”
Enough Republicans clearly expressed second thoughts to thwart the bill in the House on the grounds the Patriot Act is too invasive and represents “big government” to which they are opposed.
However, time is running out to extend these three key provisions, they “sunset” – or cease to become law – at the end of the month.
The issue has yet to move to the upper house the senate, where it is known there are two proposals that would extend the Act till the end of 2013 – something the White House says it favours – a position that has drawn the ire of civil-liberties campaigners.