House Republican leaders were forced yesterday to summon lawmakers back into session next month to quell an uproar over a belatedly discovered provision in a huge spending bill that would have given Appropriations Committee chairmen access to Americans' tax returns.
Lawmakers thought they were done with the $388 billion government spending bill when they approved it Saturday. But, because Democrats balked at holding a quick vote without a roll call today, House members will have to return Dec. 6 to pass a resolution repealing the tax-return provision, which will free the spending bill to go to the White House for signature.
The spending bill, which funds most domestic operations of the government through Sept. 30, was approved by both chambers Saturday. But the Senate, furious over the House-drafted provision on tax returns, refused to send the measure to President Bush until both sides voted to repeal the contested language.
The Senate did so Saturday, and House Republicans agreed to follow suit today, hoping the House could approve the measure by unanimous consent to avoid calling legislators back to Washington for a roll-call vote the day before Thanksgiving.
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a statement yesterday saying Democrats would not go along with a vote today unless Republicans agreed to stop rushing bills through Congress. She demanded that they limit what the Democrats called "martial law" procedures dispensing with a rule requiring a three-day wait between the filing of a House-Senate conference report and a vote on the floor.
"The assault on taxpayer privacy was not a simple mistake, and Democrats will not let Republicans sweep it under the rug," Pelosi said. "It was a 'Saturday night massacre' on Americans' privacy made possible only by the Republicans' willingness to abuse the rules of the people's house," she added.
Pelosi said Democrats would agree to a vote Dec. 6 "after the rest of the spending bill can be examined," along with passage today of another "continuing resolution," or stopgap spending bill for the government, that would last through Dec. 8. Current spending authority expires Dec. 3.
Republicans, refusing to agree to Pelosi's demand for a slowdown in their vote-scheduling practices, then backed off plans for a vote today and agreed to call the House back into session Dec. 6 to repeal the tax-return language.
Earlier, House leaders had said lawmakers might be called back that day if an agreement was reached by then on legislation to overhaul intelligence operations, which was stalled in House-Senate negotiations when members of both chambers left town last weekend. But prospects for an agreement are unclear, and many legislators assumed they would not be returning, according to aides.
Republicans accused Democrats of inconveniencing all members to "get some political hay out of this whole thing," in the words of John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Feehery said Pelosi was seeking an "empty promise" because "we cannot bind what future congresses do . . . and she knows that."
But Democrats contended that voting on bills before lawmakers have had time to read them invites embarrassing and potentially dangerous mistakes. The more-than-3,000-page spending bill was passed within hours of approval by House-Senate negotiators.
Doubts remained yesterday over exactly how the controversial tax-return provision -- which allows Appropriations Committee chairmen or their "agents" access to Internal Revenue Service facilities or "any tax returns or return information contained therein" -- got into the omnibus spending bill late last week. House Republicans blamed committee staff aides and the IRS.
Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the IRS, denied any role. Yesterday Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who had referred to the proposal as the "Istook amendment" Saturday, issued a statement expressing regret for "any confusion my earlier remarks may have created."