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Frist: Tax-returns measure indefensible

Senate leaders vow author will be held accountable

Bill Frist
Charles Schumer
John McCain

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Sunday that "accountability will be carried out" against whoever slipped a provision into an omnibus spending bill that would have allowed two committee chairmen to view the tax returns of any American.

"I have no earthly idea how it got in there," Frist said on CBS's "Face The Nation." "Nobody is going to defend this."

The language was caught and removed in the Senate on Saturday, but the House will have to approve the fix before the spending bill can be sent to the White House for President Bush's signature.

However, the delay will not cause a government shutdown. Congress already had passed a stopgap resolution to fund government agencies through December 3 in order to give the White House time to consider the omnibus bill.

A military plane flew that resolution to Chile, where Bush was attending the APEC summit, so the president could sign it to avoid any disruption of government.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said in a written statement that "The Republicans' lack of transparency and willingness to abuse their power is undermining democracy. It should be of grave concern to all Americans that their privacy could be invaded by such an outrageous provision."

Sen. John McCain said Sunday that the episode points up the problems created when Congress passes gigantic spending bills at the end of a session, before anyone has time to read them.

"If there is ever a graphic example of the broken system that we now have, that certainly has to be it," the Arizona Republican said on NBC's "Meet The Press." "How many other provisions didn't we find in that 1,000-page bill?"

Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York called Sunday for a "full and complete" investigation into how the language got into the bill, followed by "appropriate punishment" for those responsible.

"This harkens back to the days of [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover, when some unknown person could go and snoop on you," he said on CNN's "Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer."

Saturday, rushing to adjourn for the year, the House passed the $338 billion omnibus spending bill, which was necessary to keep government operations funded after Congress ran out of time to pass nine regular appropriations bills. The bill ran to more than 1,000 pages. (Full story)

Saturday had been scheduled as the final day of a lame-duck session for the 108th Congress. On Sunday, top Democrats and Republicans expressed frustration over the House's failure to pass a broad intelligence reorganization bill. A vote in December is still possible, as Congress has not gone into recess. (Full story)

After the House passed the spending bill, Democratic Senate staffers discovered that it contained a provision allowing the chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees, or their agents, to examine the tax returns of any American.

The two lawmakers who would have gained that power -- Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, and Rep. Bill Young, a Florida Republican -- both said they wouldn't use it, and the Senate approved a resolution deleting the language.

Frist and outgoing Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, agreed to hold the bill until the House could pass a similar fix, which could not happen before Wednesday.

Schumer said Pelosi told him she planned to hold up consideration of the bill in the House "until we find out who put this provision in."

Some Democrats implied that the measure was inserted for political gain.

"Does anyone believe that some staffer without permission thought up a scheme by which a chairman's 'agent' could have access to every IRS facility everywhere in this nation and every single IRS filing of every citizen of this nation?" said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.

"I mean, you know, we weren't born yesterday."

Frist said he did not know who was responsible for inserting the language, "but, obviously, somebody is going to know, and accountability will be carried out."

The Senate leader also noted that passing appropriations together into one omnibus bill was "not unusual," and that the appropriations subcommittees have been working on it for nine months.

"This thing wasn't written over the last three or four days," he told CBS, though he conceded that the budget process needed to be changed.

"We're going to work on that in the next Congress," he said.

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