Patriot Act Extension Fails, Splitting Tea Party Republicans

How limited a limited government does the Tea Party want?

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The Patriot Act took a temporary hit Tuesday night when the House failed to muster a two-thirds majority to extend three provisions of the law under special fast-track rules. It’s a temporary setback for the bill, which is expected to easily pass in a few days under regular rules. And it’s a kick in the teeth to the newly-minted GOP leadership, which missed what should have been a lay-up.

Most Democrats voted against the extension (which the White House supports) and were joined by 26 Republicans. What I find interesting is the fault line this vote reveals among Tea Party GOPers.

Slate’s Dave Weigel breaks out the list of GOP defectors, which includes eight freshmen elected under the Tea Party banner and three more veteran lawmakers who were inaugural members of the Tea Party caucus last year. But, he notes, high profile Tea Partyers like Michele Bachmann (who founded the Tea Party caucus after all), Kristi Noem, and Allen West all voted for the extension. “I break this out because there'll be a temptation to say ‘the Tea Party and its isolationist elements beat the reauthorization,’ and that's not quite it,” he writes. [ See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]

He’s right--it's not that simple. But it does illustrate both an intellectual blind spot among the sometimes-limited government advocates and a fissure among them. Hot Air’s Allahpundit notes that “if there’s any tea party angle to all this, it’s that there wasn’t more opposition among the GOP freshmen: After months of rhetoric about government intrusion and hand-wringing on both sides about Obama’s expansion of Bush’s counterterror powers … they had some political cover to draw the line on extending parts of the Patriot Act further if they wanted to. … Nope.” Indeed—their antigovernment rhetoric has its limits. [ See editorial cartoons about the GOP.]

The New Republic's Jon Chait and the Washington Monthly's Steve Benen have written persuasively about the limitations in the Tea Partyers’ view of limited government. As Benen noted in the wake of the Patriot Act vote:

The Tea Party message is often incoherent and contradictory--deficits are bad, but tax cuts that make deficits worse are good; health care reform is bad, but socialized medicine through Medicare is good--but it's also extremely limited. When they talk about their fears of "government," what they're generally afraid of is benefits for those who aren't like them.

When civil liberties come up at all, it's only part of a hysterical, paranoid vision in which federal officials will put them in internment camps for not filling out Census forms.

There’s a lot of truth there. But as with the “Tea Party takes down the Patriot Act” narrative, that’s not quite it either. The extent to which the Tea Party is (or is not) able to reconcile this split bears watching.