WASHINGTON — Fearing that terrorists might target Congress, the House on Thursday approved a bill to set up speedy special elections if 100 or more of its members are killed.
The House, in a 306-97 vote, put aside for now the larger issue of whether the Constitution should be amended to allow for temporary appointments in the event that an attack caused mass fatalities among lawmakers.
The House, said Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., sponsor of the elections bill and a foe of appointments, "is rooted in democratic principles and those principles must be preserved at all costs."
Thursday's vote came two and a half years after the Sept. 11 attacks and the crash in Pennsylvania of United Flight 93, a plane that many believe was destined for the U.S. Capitol.
"Those passengers gave their lives to give us a second chance," said Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., a supporter of the broader constitutional approach. "Eternal shame on us if we do not take action" to protect Congress' survival after a possible attack.
The measure would require special elections within 45 days of the House speaker confirming that a catastrophic event had left at least 100 of the 435 seats vacant. Language was added to ensure that military personnel stationed overseas would have their voting rights protected.
Congress considered but never acted on the continuity question during the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, when the fear was that Washington could be obliterated in a nuclear attack.
The current legislation has split the two parties in the House, with many Democrats saying they were not given the chance to offer a constitutional amendment that would allow for temporary appointments until special elections could be held.
The Constitution requires that House vacancies be filled by elections. Senate vacancies can be temporarily filled by appointments made by governors.
The Senate has not taken up the terrorist attack issue, though Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has proposed a constitutional change giving states the flexibility to come up with their own solutions.
Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures.
Sensenbrenner said expedited elections could get the House back on its feet after a disaster without betraying the democratic underpinnings of the chamber.
As for the possibility of a largely appointed House, he asked, "Is that what the framers of the Constitution had in mind?" His answer: "No way."
Still, in a gesture to Democrats and some in his own party who favor the constitutional approach, Sensenbrenner pledged that his committee would vote on a proposed constitutional amendment in the near future. Hearings were also scheduled on the issue of incapacitation, or how to define when a member who is still alive is unable to carry out his congressional duties, possibly because of a biological or chemical attack.
Critics of the 45-day election plan said it was both too short a time for some states to prepare for elections and too long to leave Congress in a paralyzed state. Several warned of a martial law condition, with the executive branch taking over legislative authorities such as declaring war during the 45 days that Congress is unable to function. "A catastrophe that could prevent whole states from being represented for 45 days is at the heart of the concern," said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., another backer of amending the Constitution. They noted that within days after the Sept. 11 attack Congress passed legislation approving billions in emergency funds to compensate victims and help out airlines. That would not be possible if Congress was unable to meet or raise a quorum, they said. The constitutional approach is backed by the non-partisan Continuity of Government Commission, formed in the fall of 2002 to study how to keep Congress functioning after a disaster. The commission's chairs former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and Lloyd Cutler, White House counsel to presidents Carter and Clinton, said in a recent letter that not one of their members went into the task with the desire to amend the Constitution. "Nevertheless, the evidence we considered led us to conclude that, for the sake of the Constitution itself, the security of our nation and the preservation of the Congress, a constitutional amendment is necessary to provide continuity in the face of a catastrophic attack."