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The great presidential autopen hullabaloo

An intrepid White House aide’s nail-bitten mission to board a transcontinental commercial flight and hand-deliver crucial national security legislation to the president before midnight WOULD have made a great subplot in the next Jason Bourne blockbuster.

Which is probably why the White House opted for an autopen instead.

Hill sources say there had been a plan to have a White House aide hand-carry legislation re-authorizing the Patriot Act to Europe, where President Barack Obama is traveling for G8 talks. But a delayed vote process meant that the bill might not have reached the signer-in-chief before the act expired at midnight.

So last night, the president made history by authorizing the first use of an autopen signature for a bill to become law.

At least one Republican lawmaker now says those robotic scratches of ink could set “a dangerous precedent” for constitutional shenanigans ahead.

Georgia Rep. Tom Graves -- who voted against the PATRIOT Act extension -- put his concerns in writing to the president today. 

After quoting Article I, section 7 of the United States Constitution in a short letter, he then, politely, assigned the president homework. 

He asked that Obama provide a "detailed, written explanation of your constitutional authority to assign a surrogate the responsibility of signing bills passed by Congress into law." 

Graves may want an answer, but when Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked about “Autopen-gate and the Mystery of the Secret Signature” he said, “I haven't looked at the legality of it and therefore don't have an opinion to express on it.”

In 2005, the then Deputy Assistant Attorney General Howard C. Neilson, Jr., (who is getting a significant amount of Google play today no doubt) released an opinion that deemed the use of an autopen to sign a bill constitutional:

“We conclude that neither past practice nor previous opinions relating to the signing requirement of Article I, Section 7 foreclose reading that requirement in a manner that is consistent with the traditional common law understanding of ‘sign,’ with attorney general and Department of Justice opinions applying that understanding to statutory signing requirements, and with the settled interpretation of the related presentment and return provisions.”

But what IS an autopen?

Bob Olding, the owner of the Damilic Corporation, one of what he says are only two companies in the United States that make and sell the devices described it like this:

“There are basically two kinds that we provide.  One is mostly mechanical and that is the old classic autopen. It has a large plastic wheel in it ... as that rotates between two levers it pushes the pen in the appropriate direction.”

They can cost anywhere from $2000 to $10000 and it’s another $175 to create each signature template that  tells the machine  what to do.  The more expensive machines are automated and involve programming your handwriting into a computer.

When asked if he had sold a machine to the White House or possibly Sarah Palin, he said, “I couldn’t tell you if we did.” He keeps his client list very hush hush but said it includes large corporations, universities and political campaigns.  

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell contributed to this report.