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Inside Politics

House approves bill to replace members after attack

Dems, GOP disagree over replacement method

From Ted Barrett
CNN Washington Bureau


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House on Thursday approved a long-stalled bill requiring special elections if a catastrophic incident results in a large loss of lawmakers.

The vote came amid heightened concern by administration officials that there could be a terrorist attack in the United States before the November election.

The bill, approved 306 to 97, would require elections within 45 days if 100 or more of the 435 House members are killed or incapacitated.

During the debate on the measure, lawmakers talked about the September 11, 2001 hijackings and crashes of four U.S. commercial jets .

"On September 11, 2001, the fourth hijacked plane was headed for the U.S. Capitol," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, the bill's author.

"If it had not been for the heroic actions of the passengers of United Flight 93 who forced the plane down over Pennsylvania, Congress's ability to function may have been severely disrupted," he said.

While few lawmakers expressed any doubt about the need for Congress to have a plan to reconstitute itself quickly, action on the legislation bogged down when Republicans and Democrats couldn't agree on a solution.

Sensenbrenner and other Republicans insisted the bill preserve the unique constitutional quality of the House: that any vacancies are filled by elections.

But Democrats -- led by Rep. Brian Baird of Washington -- criticized the GOP plan as slow and cumbersome. They argued it would would leave the nation without a key part of the government at a time of need.

Speaking on the House floor, Baird contemplated a new president taking over after a devastating attack on Washington.

"Should they have 45 days carte blanche to take this country to war, take away your civil rights, and will you have no one here to express your concerns?" he asked.

The Democrats want to change the Constitution to allow governors almost immediately to appoint House members temporarily until an election could beheld or to allow each member of the House to choose a short list of successors who could take over.

They have begun a petition drive to force their proposal to the floor for a vote.

Though the bill passed Tuesday affects only the House, the Senate must also approve the measure. Companion legislation is moving slowly in the Senate and is unlikely to be voted on soon, aides said.

That bill, sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, would allow states to develop their own plans to fill vacancies.

Senate seats are not in question because the Constitution already gives governors the ability to make appointments to fill vacancies.

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