updated 11/20/2004 8:51:13 PM ET 2004-11-21T01:51:13

Congress debated legislation Saturday giving two committee chairman and their assistants access to income tax returns without regard to privacy protections, but not before red-faced Republicans said it was all a mistake and would be swiftly repealed.

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“This is a serious situation,” said Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. He said he was unaware of the provision, inserted into a 3,300-page spending bill covering most federal agencies and programs.

Questioned sharply by fellow Republicans as well as Democrats, Stevens pleaded with the Senate to approve the overall spending bill.

Stevens promised a resolution repealing that provision relating to tax returns. He said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., had agreed to have the resolution passed when the House returns Dec. 6.

In the meantime, he said, President Bush intends to issue a statement declaring that the section of law will be disregarded.

But Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said that wasn’t good enough. “It becomes the law of the land on the signature of the president of the United States. That’s wrong.”

Conrad said the measure’s presence in the spending bill was symptomatic of a broader problem — Congress writing legislation hundreds of pages long and then giving lawmakers only a few hours to review it before having to vote on it.

Stevens, who repeatedly apologized for the error, took offense at Conrad’s statement. In a reference to House Republican leaders, he said it was included in the bill after “a representation was made by one staffer that the front office in the other body wanted it.”

“It’s contrary to anything that I have seen happen in more than 30 years on this committee,” Stevens said, adding that House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., was equally appalled.

Pounding on his desk, Stevens said he had given his word and so had Young that neither would use the authority. “I would hope that the Senate would take my word. I don’t think I have ever broken my word to any member of the Senate.”

“... Do I have to get down on my knees and beg,” he said.

Both Young and Stevens will cede their chairmanships when the new Congress elected earlier this month takes office in January.

Some Democrats didn’t accept the assertion that the provision was a mistake and demanded an investigation.

“We weren’t born yesterday, we didn’t come down with the first snow,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “This isn’t poorly thought out, this was very deliberately thought out and it was done in the dead of night.”

Members of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee now have limited access to tax returns, but there are severe criminal and civil penalties if the information is disclosed or misused.

Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the measure will “bring us back to the doorstep to the days of President Nixon, President Truman and other dark days in our history when taxpayer information was used against political enemies.”

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