The House approved legislation Monday night that extends the authority of the U.S. government to conduct three specific surveillance activities, which would otherwise expire at the end of this month.
The bill was approved in a 275-144 vote with the support of more than 60 Democrats, and with more than two dozen Republicans in opposition.
The margins were very similar in both votes. Last week's failed 277-148 vote saw 26 Republicans vote against their party, and 67 Democrats join the Republicans.
The one-hour debate before the vote was less incendiary than it was last week, although there was some tension at the end of the debate when House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.) asked to borrow some debate time from Republicans. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said jokingly that he would offer some time if Conyers would give him a copy of the Democratic motion to recommit the bill (Smith then promptly offered two minutes of time to Conyers).
Minutes later, Democrats introduced a motion to recommit the bill with instructions to add language ensuring that it is implemented in compliance with the U.S. Constitution. This motion failed, but before the vote, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) complained that Smith's gesture was not reciprocated, and that Republicans received a copy of the motion just as the House clerk started reading it.
The House bill extends three authorities until December 8: roving surveillance, the collection of business documents and other tangible materials, and surveillance of "lone wolf" operators who are not acting against the U.S. as part of an established terrorist group.
House passage only complicates the issue for the Senate. The Senate is already moving more slowly than it thought it would on an FAA bill this week, and when it turns to the Patriot Act, it has its choice of three bills. Two of these would extend the authorities for three years, and the third provides a permanent extension.
The Senate is likely to act this week on a bill, since the surveillance authorities expire February 28, and both the House and the Senate are out next week. A Senate decision to take up the House bill would be the quickest way to proceed, but the Senate has not indicated it would do this yet.