I was away, but last night brought that rare species in Washington – an unexpected event. I fully expected the House to pass the extension of three key provisions of the Patriot Act, despite the 2/3 vote needed under suspension rules. But 26 Republicans broke with their party and, along with 122 Democrats, denied passage.

Let me just give you an understanding of how unusual this is in this 112th Congress. So far there have been 26 total roll call votes. (I know, what a pace! Almost one a day! Your tax dollars, work, etc.) Here are the total votes against the prevailing Republican party line on all of those other 25 roll call votes, combined: TWO. Both by the same person, Walter Jones (R-NC), on successive votes about eliminating public financing of presidential elections.

This was the first even remotely controversial vote brought up by the House, but the Republican leadership clearly thought they had the ability to clear it. And their actions in whipping the vote suggest they have no idea what they’re doing:

There was no sign that the leadership saw the setbacks coming. The Patriot Act was moved to the floor under suspension of the rules — a provision that requires two-thirds majority (290 votes) to pass and is often used for noncontroversial legislation. After holding the vote open well past the 15-minute window, it failed 277 to 148 with five Republicans and four Democrats not voting [...]

And a handful of the no-votes were freshmen who felt completely uninformed by their leadership. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), who voted for the bill, said he “didn’t know anything about (the vote) until today.”

“In a free society you have to be very careful as to taking away the civil liberties of the American people” Rokita said. “Even if the bill is well intentioned and the law is well intentioned it can be used against innocent people. So that was my concern. But I’m here looking at a reauthorization at the end of the year and I’ll look at it more closely then.”

GOP leaders seemed unable to flip swing votes as the bill stalled on the floor. McCarthy and Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) cornered Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) on the floor — the Georgia appropriator didn’t flip his vote.

It’s actually not as simple as saying the new Tea Party freshmen voted against the bill – only 8 of the 26 no votes came from freshmen, including one who had been in Congress before (Mike Fitzpatrick). When push came to shove, most of the tea partiers didn’t give a damn about liberty or the Constitution. But enough Republicans did to mess up the numbers.

What you really saw was a whip operation and bill managers that didn’t have a clear count on the vote and didn’t understand how to persuade their own members at the end. That has wide implications for more contentious fights in the future. Kevin McCarthy, the Majority Whip, tried to play this off as House Democrats “denying their own administration’s request for key weapons in the war on terror,” by which he means key weapons like unreasonable search and seizure and intrusions into personal privacy. But the truth his he dropped the ball among his own caucus, where there were enough votes to succeed.

The Republicans will bring this up again under a rule, and they have a hefty cushion to get it to pass by majority vote. And with a good number of Democrats shamelessly voting for it in the House, and sure to in the Senate, I don’t think this stops the “lone wolf,” roving wiretap and business records provisions from getting extended. It will eventually happen, particularly because the White House supports passage without amending the provisions whatsoever. There will be no committee markup, no hearings, no major deliberation. Just a quick push.

So let’s look at this for what it is: a failure of leadership by the Republican House, on the first slightly controversial bill. That’s a sign of a caucus poised to implode. If I were Harry Reid or Barack Obama, I’d beware of cutting any deals with John Boehner. He doesn’t have any power, it seems.