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US House of Representatives Approves Legislation Aimed at Ensuring Continuity After Catastrophic Event - 2004-04-22

The House of Representatives Thursday has approved a Republican-sponsored legislation aimed at ensuring the U.S. Congress can continue to function should there be a catastrophic terrorist attack that kills or incapacitates large numbers of lawmakers. The vote was 306 to 97. Both Democrats and Republicans cite dangers from potential new terrorist attacks.

The bill calls for special elections within 45 days of confirmation that a terrorist attack or other catastrophic event has left at least 100 of 435 seats vacant.

Congressman James Sensenbrenner, Republican Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is the key sponsor.

"The debate today goes basically to the issue of whether the re-constituted House should preserve the tradition that the House of Representatives has always consisted of members that were first elected by the people, or whether we should have appointed representatives," he said.

Mr. Sensenbrenner and supporters describe the bill as the most reasonable first step in building a new foundation for governmental continuity.

Any system of appointing members of the House would, according to Republicans, violate principles set down by the crafters of the Constitution. They also disputed Democratic claims 45 days is too long to wait for special elections, saying states have proven they are capable of responding quickly.

Democrats said that the legislation, if approved, would create a political "vacuum" in the event of a crisis.

Democratic Congressman Brian Baird said the September 11th (2001) terrorist attacks demonstrate a need for stronger action, such as a constitutional amendment for temporary appointments before House elections can be held.

"What do we seek?" he asked. "Checks and balances. We seek to assure that the Article One [of the Constitution] responsibilities of declaration of war, appropriating funds, impeaching a president, and all the other things that this body is tasked for, with Article One, not the Executive branch, are preserved and the bill before us today does none of that."

This view was also supported by findings of a special bi-partisan "Continuity of Government Commission." Norman Ornstein, a counselor to the commission, spoke at a news conference earlier in the week.

"The idea that somehow the people need to be protected from a constitutional amendment to provide temporary appointments in the face of catastrophic attacks, to allow our constitutional system to keep working so as not to allow all power to pass to one branch of government that may be populated by people no Americans are familiar with at all, it is laughable," he added.

Though on opposite sides of the debate, Republicans and Democrats insisted they are driven by a common recognition that terrorists could use weapons of mass destruction to devastate Congress.

However, Democrats accused Republicans of "playing politics", and said that the majority party refused to allow adequate debate on constitutional amendment proposals.

Mr. Sensenbrenner has pledged to have his House Judiciary Committee consider one Democratic constitutional amendment next week. Democrats said they doubt the measure will get to the full House for a vote.

Rules in the U.S. Senate allow state governors to appoint senators when a vacancy occurs before an election. To amend the U.S. Constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote in both House and Senate, and ratification by three-fourths of U.S. state legislatures.