- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 18, 2002

A bipartisan group in Congress is working to ensure Congress can function after a terrorist attack that kills or disables lawmakers.

The group has yet to propose a solution, but it expects to take a resolution to the House floor soon that will be designed to ensure representatives who are killed or disabled can be replaced quickly. It will urge state legislatures to amend laws to accelerate special elections.

"While we are working with all deliberate speed, we are doing so methodically," says Rep. Christopher Cox of California, the Republican chairman of the House Policy Committee, who is working with Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

The House, unlike the Senate, does not have a mechanism to replace members in the event that a large number are killed.

The Constitution allows governors to appoint temporary replacement senators as soon as a vacancy occurs. But House members who die must be replaced by election, and special elections in some states require as long as six months.

Several lawmakers want to amend the Constitution so that felled House members could also be replaced by gubernatorial appointment. Rep. Brian Baird, Washington Democrat, has introduced such a proposal, and Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, has a similar one in the Senate.

But leaders are leaning away from amending the Constitution. "I don't think there's an appetite out there to change the Constitution," says John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.

"A constitutional amendment is not even procedurally conceivable in the current Congress in terms of time," Mr. Cox says. "Beyond that, it is the strong preference of leadership that all other avenues be explored before we resort to amending the Constitution."

Other issues being addressed by the group include presidential-succession scenarios and how to define a quorum, the number of congressional members present necessary to conduct business.

The Constitution requires a majority in both chambers, which has long been interpreted to mean a majority of members chosen, sworn in and living. One idea is to codify this in the House rules, to ensure a quorum could be adjusted accordingly. Otherwise, Mr. Cox notes, the House "cannot even do business until 218 people show up."

But there is still a problem if many members are "incapacitated" in burn units, quarantined or perfectly healthy in their home states but unable to travel to Washington because of an attack. This is an ambiguous issue, Mr. Cox says, because the definition of "incapacitated" is subjective and could be used for "mischief" in peacetime.

As the group works to address this and other issues, a new independent commission of experts has been convened to bring more attention to the project and to complement the Hill efforts.

The Continuity of Government Commission is led by the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution, and includes former House Speakers Newt Gingrich and Tom Foley. It will hold its first hearing on the matter Monday and issue its report in Jan. 2003.

John Fortier, the panel's executive director, noted that there are problems with speeding up states' special elections as some House members urge. He says that in a shortened election, primaries may have to be eliminated and only well-known people would be likely to run.

The congressional committee is also looking at changing the Presidential Succession Act and could introduce legislation this session, Mr. Cox says. One of the problems to be addressed there is what happens after an attack if a Cabinet member, such as the secretary of state, becomes president, but the House subsequently convenes and elects a new speaker.

Because under the Constitution, the speaker is second in line for succession, after the vice president, it would appear that the new speaker could displace the secretary of state as president, Mr. Cox says. The act could be changed to ensure that once a succession is in place, it is final and cannot be trumped in such a situation.

Some changes have already been made. One House Democratic aide says both the House and the Senate have recently changed their recess-adjournment resolutions. They now allow a designee of either chamber's leader to call Congress back into session and to do so outside Washington if necessary. This is in case the speaker or majority leader is killed in an attack or in case Washington is bombed.

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