updated 4/22/2004 4:47:01 PM ET 2004-04-22T20:47:01

Fearing that terrorists might target Congress, the House approved a bill Thursday to set up speedy special elections if 100 or more of its members were 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 an opponent of appointments, “is rooted in democratic principles, and those principles must be preserved at all costs.”

Thursday’s vote came 2½ years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the crash in Pennsylvania of United Flight 93, which 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’s confirming that a catastrophic event had left at last 100 of the 435 seats vacant. Language was added to ensure that military personnel stationed overseas would have their voting rights protected.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., called the bill “one part of a comprehensive strategy of preparing for the unthinkable.”

Democrats tend to disagree
But critics argued that the bill could leave Congress in a political vacuum for weeks at a time of terrible crisis. Democrats say the Republican leadership has denied them the chance to discuss other alternatives, including constitutional amendments that would allow for temporary appointments before elections could be held.

They noted that Congress passed critical legislation within days after Sept. 11, approving billions of dollars in emergency funds, compensating victims and supporting the use of military force.

“This is a matter of great consequence,” said Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House’s No. 2 Democrat, “and ought not be considered as if it is on some matter that can be disposed of on a Thursday afternoon.”

Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., one of several lawmakers who has proposed amending the Constitution, asked: “Dare we tempt fate and not provide for an interim solution?”

Sensenbrenner was backed by Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who regards appointments as a betrayal of the principles laid down by the Founding Fathers, said his spokesman, John Feehery. But Republican leaders said Wednesday that they would address the constitutional question because of the strong interest.

Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., said he had reassurances from Sensenbrenner that a Judiciary subcommittee would vote on a constitutional amendment in the next few weeks.

The House’s No. 3 Republican, Roy Blunt of Missouri, also is holding talks with Democrats on the complex issue of defining when a lawmaker is incapacitated by an attack, which was not addressed by Sensenbrenner’s bill.

Senate rules
The Senate already allows governors to appoint senators when a vacancy occurs before an election. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has proposed a constitutional amendment to give states the flexibility to come up with their own ways of quickly filling seats after a terrorist attack on Congress.

Amendments require a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate and ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures.

The constitutional approach is backed by the Continuity of Government Commission, which was formed in fall 2002 to study how to keep Congress functioning after a disaster. The commission, headed by former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and Lloyd Cutler, White House counsel to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, included Carter and former President Gerald Ford, as well as former Speakers Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Thomas Foley, D-Wash.

Simpson and Cutler said in a recent letter that not one of the 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.”

Background on the commission is online at www.continuityofgovernment.org.

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