WASHINGTON – Almost two years after a hijacked plane supposedly headed for the Capitol crashed in a Pennsylvania field, Congress is still confronted with the specter of a terrorist attack, and lawmakers are devising ways to keep the body running if the worst were to happen.
"We’re living in a different age, a different time, and we have to look at the reality that terrorists do pose a threat," said Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., a member of the House Homeland Security Committee (search). "We must not allow our government body to be interfered with, no matter how serious the attack that might occur."
On Thursday, the House passed by voice vote a bill to establish a joint House and Senate committee to explore how Congress can best respond to a catastrophic attack on its membership. The panel will be charged with looking at how to replace members, where they would meet and how to work out any potential wrinkles in the line of presidential succession.
Members said this week that despite the time that has lapsed since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, they still feel an urgency to write into place new rules to ensure continuity — even if that means a constitutional amendment to do so.
"On that day, amidst the carnage in New York, at the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania, the whole notion that this country is immune from terrorist attack was destroyed in a matter of minutes," said Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, on the floor of the House Thursday.
Heading a bipartisan working group last session with Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., Frost helped develop new rules governing how and when the speaker would reconvene the House in the event of an emergency. The panel also concluded that real changes that needed to be made may require constitutional remedies.
"I don’t know of any way of replacing members without changing the Constitution," said Tom Eisenhauer, spokesman for the House Rules Committee.
While the Constitution allows for state governors to appoint replacements for their senators if they die in office, states must hold special elections to replace members of the House. This could take as long as 90 days in some cases since each state has different rules regarding special elections, said Eisenhauer.
If the country is in chaos, this timeframe just won’t do, he said.
"The fear is, it would take anywhere from a couple of months or longer to hold the special election. In the meantime, the legislative branch would be crippled or its legitimacy questioned," Eisenhauer said.
An outside commission sponsored by two Washington think tanks and consisting of former legislative officials and policymakers, released a report Wednesday saying a constitutional amendment is necessary to allow governors to temporarily replace House members until special elections could be held for permanent replacements.
"Our constitutional framework does not allow the House of Representatives to be reconstituted quickly after a large number of deaths," concluded the Continuity of Government Commission, sponsored by the Brookings Institution (search) and American Enterprise Institute (search).
Several members of Congress have taken the initiative. Last session, Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., introduced a bill calling for a constitutional amendment to allow governors to make temporary appointments to the House. Sen. Arlen Spector, R-Pa., and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., have sponsored similar measures.
But not all agree with this route. Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., said he does not want to wreck the sanctity of the House as a body of elected officials, and is hoping to find ways outside of an amendment to give governors the authority to make appointments.
"His concern lies in the fact that the House of Representative is the only federal body to which you still have to be elected. He’s very, very serious about making sure this is still the people’s house," said Dreier spokeswoman Jo Maney. "And he's not too crazy about changing the Constitution.”
Several members contacted by Foxnews.com acknowledged that the constitutional issue is sure to be the source of considerable debate by the new commission, expected to turn in a preliminary report Jan. 31, 2004, and a final one on May 31, 2004. The panel will consist of 10 members from each chamber, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
"I think it is definitely a topic that we will be having a healthy, serious discussion on," said Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Administration Committee, adding that beyond the election issue, other concerns remain.
"Someone is going to have to establish how many people being killed constitutes a catastrophic event," he said. "There’s going to be a lot of debate."
Debate will also be held on a bill introduced by Frost, Baird and Cox, among other members of the working group, that calls for clarification in the presidential line of succession. That includes the addition of the Homeland Security secretary in that line.
In addition, Langevin is introducing legislation that allows House members to meet via video conferencing or other available technology if they were indeed separated by natural disaster or terrorist attacks.
“We cannot let the business of the people be interrupted,” he said.