WASHINGTON – House Republicans and Democrats can't seem to get together, even when considering their mutual destruction.
The House is to take up a bill Thursday, a much-awaited response to the Sept. 11 attacks, to prepare itself for the eventuality where a terror attack or other catastrophe kills a large proportion of its members.
The bill, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (search), R-Wis., would require the holding of special elections within 45 days of the speaker's announcement of "extraordinary circumstances" that include more than 100 vacant seats in the 435-seat House.
Sensenbrenner, who has the support of several Democrats, contends his bill retains the unique character of the House where every member, even when filling a vacancy, is chosen by a vote of his or her constituents. The Senate, differently, allows governors to appoint senators when vacancies arise prior to an election.
Democrats who oppose the Sensenbrenner bill as inadequate are angered by what they say are GOP-imposed limits on their ability to present alternatives, such as constitutional amendments to recognize temporary appointments as a way of preventing congressional paralysis.
"The Sensenbrenner approach is significantly flawed," said Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., who has pursued the issue since Sept. 11, 2001, when it is widely believed that the fourth hijacked plane that went down in Pennsylvania had been destined to crash into the Capitol (search).
Baird said at a hearing of the Rules Committee, which determines what amendments will be allowed, that the House should dedicate a week to debate the issue. "It would be momentous, but these are momentous times," Baird said.
Republicans at the hearing said the House still could take up a constitutional amendment later. "This is far from the end of the debate," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., joining Baird in a signature campaign to force Republican leaders to consider other options, said 45 days was both too much time for Congress to remain inactive and not enough time for states to organize special elections. He said states would not have time to hold primaries, and military personnel and those living overseas probably would be disenfranchised.
Baird is among at least three Democrats, including Reps. John Larson, D-Conn., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who have introduced constitutional amendments that would allow vacancies to be filled by appointment until special elections could be held.
Without full discussion on a constitutional amendment "we do a disservice to the institution," Larson told the Rules Committee.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., also has proposed amending the Constitution so that each general election candidate for the House or Senate would be authorized to name, in ranked order, three to five potential temporary successors.
His idea, which like other amendments would require two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures, would apply to any membership change, not just those occurring as a result of a major disaster.
A constitutional amendment also has the backing of the Continuity of Government Commission (search), a nonpartisan body established after Sept. 11 to recommend how best to cope with a devastating attack on Congress.
The chairmen of the commission, which includes former speakers Newt Gingrich and Tom Foley, wrote recently that mandated special election would not be enough to ensure continuity.
"It would be a grave error for Congress to pass legislation that purports to address continuity but in fact risks leaving our nation without a functioning House in a time of crisis," wrote former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and Lloyd Cutler, White House counsel to presidents Carter and Clinton.
In the Senate, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has proposed amending the Constitution to allow states to choose how to fill vacancies, either by special election or appointment.