WASHINGTON -- Congress debated legislation yesterday giving two committee chairmen 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regard to privacy protections, but not before red-faced Republicans said it was all a mistake and would be swiftly repealed.
''This is a serious situation," said Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. 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.
The Senate passed a resolution saying the tax returns provision ''shall have no effect." Stevens said Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, had agreed to have the House pass it when that chamber reconvenes Dec. 6.
''We're going to get that done," said John Feehery, a spokesman for Hastert.
In the meantime, Stevens said, President Bush intends to issue a statement declaring that the section of law will be disregarded.
But Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota, said that was not good enough. ''It becomes the law of the land on the signature of the president of the United States. That's wrong."
Conrad added that the measure's presence 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.