WASHINGTON – A skeleton crew of lawmakers voted Wednesday to keep the government from shutting down as House Democrats lambasted Republicans over a provision passed last week that both parties agreed was a turkey.
The dispute was over language buried in a $388 billion spending bill letting leaders of Congress' Appropriations committees examine income tax returns (search). Both parties favor killing the tax return idea before it becomes law and the Senate has voted to do so, but Democrats blocked a House vote until Dec. 6.
That delay gave Democrats more time to criticize majority Republicans for inserting the measure and for using their muscle to ram bills through Congress with little chance for lawmakers to learn what is in them. The overall bill and accompanying documents stood 3,646 pages tall on lawmakers' desks when they approved it Saturday.
The measure was completed in round-the-clock negotiations so exhausting that Rep. David Obey (search), D-Wis., said Wednesday that two aides fainted from sleeplessness. He said such procedures are hurting Congress' credibility with the public.
The discovery of the provision — made Saturday by a Democratic aide on the Senate Budget Committee as Congress was considering the overall spending package — saved Congress from "a massive embarrassment," said Rep. Robert Matsui (search), D-Calif.
"Had this become law, there would have been some time over the next few years where someone would have abused that process and someone's returns would have been disclosed to the press," he said.
"The sad fact is this is not an aberration. ... This is the way we do appropriations bills now," said the second-ranking House Democratic leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
With nearly all of Congress home for Thanksgiving, Obey, Matsui and Hoyer were among about nine House members who showed up for Wednesday's House session, which lasted 41 minutes. None of the Republicans present addressed the issue.
Afterward, John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said Democrats were "grasping at short straws" by criticizing the tax return provision.
"They got whopped in the election and they're playing politics by seizing on this resolution that everyone agrees must go," he said.
The Senate met for six minutes Wednesday with three senators present. There was no debate over the tax-return provision, which senators sparred over Saturday as the spending bill passed.
GOP leaders have agreed to not send the $388 billion spending bill to President Bush for his signature until the separate measure withdrawing the income tax return provision passes Congress.
The overall bill finances 12 Cabinet departments and scores of other agencies for the government budget year that started Oct. 1. Those agencies have been operating since then on temporary authority which was scheduled to run out Dec. 3.
Because Congress will not give final approval to the bill killing the tax return provision until Dec. 6, the House and Senate voted by voice Wednesday to extend agencies' spending authority through Dec. 8.
Though Democrats complained about the GOP's hardball procedures, Democrats used similar processes to speed legislation through Congress when they were in the majority.
They sent President Reagan a huge end-of-session spending bill in 1987. In the early 1990s, according to a list provided by Feehery, they used expedited procedures for quick votes on bills including gun control, family medical leave and crime.
"It's a question of posturing by the parties," said Christopher Deering, a political science professor at George Washington University. "How else does the out party get in? By accusing the in party of hubris. That's exactly what Republicans said about Democrats" when the GOP was the minority.
Since the 1970s, leaders of the House Ways and Means, Senate Finance and Joint Tax committees have had the authority to examine tax returns or grant permission to others to do so. They are subject to civil and criminal penalties if they disclose the information — punishments lacking from the language in the spending bill.
Aides say the authority is needed for Congress' role of overseeing the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS requires such a waiver for anyone entering a room where tax returns are present.