- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2002

House Republican leaders yesterday quickly quelled the objections of one of their most powerful committee chairmen to a Senate-passed bill on corporate accountability after Democrats accused them of trying to kill the measure.
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas told Republican colleagues in a closed meeting that he was considering sending the Senate Democrats' bill back to the Senate for revisions because it contains a new tax, and the Constitution specifies that tax bills must originate in the House.
"It clearly is not a fee, it's a tax," said Mr. Thomas, California Republican. "All I wanted to make sure was that we do it correctly."
But Democrats promptly accused Republicans of derailing the politically sensitive legislation. And within hours, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert had persuaded Mr. Thomas to remove his objections and instead address the issue in a House-Senate conference, which is expected to move the measure quickly.
"There was agreement that trying to fix this in conference would be a better approach," said Hastert spokesman John Feehery. "We want to get the bill done by the August recess. It's important for investor confidence."
Lawmakers said they expect to approve the final version by the end of next week.
The Senate bill, approved Monday during a wave of publicity about corporate executives fraudulently inflating company earnings, would create an independent oversight board funded by accounting firms and public companies.
The House bill approved in April lacks such a tax and would put a new oversight board under the control of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
When word spread yesterday that Mr. Thomas might "blue-slip," or object to, the Senate bill, Democrats immediately accused Republicans of trying to kill the legislation outright.
"If they're going to kill the bill, I think they have a lot of explaining to do," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat. "They need to demonstrate that they're on the side of investors, they're on the side of the American people, and not on the side of those who want to kill this legislation."
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, said Republicans' strategy was to "slow it down."
"Who cares about investors? Who cares about employees? Who cares about well-run businesses? I would say it's Democrats," Mr. Gephardt said. "Who cares about the special interests who want to slow it down and water it down? I would say it's Republicans."
Some Republicans acknowledged that they feel vulnerable to the Democratic attacks.
"People are anxious to get it done," said Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican. "These things take on a life of their own. We have to pay attention to what the markets and consumers are saying."
Yet Republican lawmakers argued they only want to improve the legislation.
"Going to conference is not dilatory," said Rep. Richard H. Baker, Louisiana Republican. "It is not a stalling tactic."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said it was Democrats who want to stall a bill, citing Mr. Gephardt's prediction that a conference could take two months to complete.
"The House Democrat plan to stall this bill is unacceptable and not in the national interest," Mr. Fleischer said.
Rep. Michael G. Oxley, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said he wants the conference to address the Senate's proposal for the independent oversight board to have subpoena power, which he called "extraordinary and maybe even beyond constitutional."
"I can't think of any similar situation out there where you have a board that's independent and is privately funded that has the ability to subpoena," Mr. Oxley said.
Both the House and Senate bills would create new criminal penalties for corporate fraud and document shredding. Chief executive officers and chief financial officers convicted of falsifying company financial reports could receive prison terms of up to 10 to 20 years in the House bill, or five to 10 years under the Senate version. They could be fined $1 million to $5 million in the House bill; $500,000 to $1 million in the Senate bill.


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