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House leaders make deal to keep tax returns private

Measure in spending bill to be removed in December session


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Lawmakers have reached an agreement on how to remove a provision in a giant spending bill that would allow two committee chairmen to review individual tax returns, a spokesman for Rep. Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday.

The agreement, the spokesman said, is that the House minority leader will allow an extension of a continuing resolution to fund the government until December 8. The House will reconvene December 6 to vote on removing the language from the omnibus spending bill.

That means the House and Senate will meet before Thanksgiving for what will likely be minimalist sessions to pass an extended continuing resolution.

The actions are necessary because the omnibus bill is being kept in the Senate and not sent to the president for his signature until the offending language is removed. The Senate approved a resolution to remove the offending language Saturday night after the House had left.

The provision would bypass other laws that govern "the disclosure of income tax returns or return information" -- and that impose steep penalties and fines on such disclosure -- to allow the chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees or their agents "access to Internal Revenue Service facilities and any tax returns or return information contained therein."

In discussions over how to remove the tax-returns provision, Pelosi had objected to regular GOP use of a parliamentary technique -- called "martial law" or a "same day" rule -- that expedites final votes on bills, often before lawmakers have time to read them.

Pelosi said she believes that kind of expedited schedule was to blame for the provision slipping past lawmakers and into the bill.

Angry House Republican leaders -- already embarrassed by the IRS flap -- contended "martial law" is a necessary tool to manage Congress and was used regularly by Democrats when they were in the majority.

"This is about good government, not about Democratic obstructionism," Pelosi aide Brendan Daly said. "We want to prevent Republicans from shoving these massive bills down members' throats with no time to look at them."

When they return in December, lawmakers could also address the intelligence overhaul bill that stalled last weekend. (Full story)

Republicans said the IRS provision was never designed to allow snooping into people's private records, but was intended to improve oversight of the agency, which just got a half-billion-dollar budget increase. Nevertheless, Republicans moved to ditch the provision after Senate Republicans and Democrats complained.

Rep. Ernest Istook, the Oklahoma Republican whose subcommittee was responsible for the provision, said it had been misrepresented.

Staff members of Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota, found the language in the 3,500-page bill Saturday after the House passed it on to the Senate as the deadline before the Senate's holiday recess rapidly approached.

Conrad said Monday the measure was "too dangerous" and should "never become law."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and his Democratic counterpart Tom Daschle ironed out an agreement to pass the $388 billion bill and remove the language by resolution, while holding it in the Senate until the House passes a similar resolution. Only then will the bill go to President Bush for his signature.

Frist said Sunday that "accountability will be carried out" against whoever slipped in the provision.

Sen. John McCain said Sunday that the episode points up the problems created when Congress passes gigantic spending bills quickly at the end of a session.

CNN's Joe Johns and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.


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