WASHINGTON — Fearing that terrorists might target U.S. lawmakers en masse, the House of Representatives approved a bill yesterday to set up speedy special elections in the event that 100 or more of its members are killed.
In a 306-97 vote, the House put aside for now the larger issue of whether the U.S. Constitution should be amended to allow for temporary appointments in the event that an attack causes mass fatalities among lawmakers.
Judiciary committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, sponsor of the elections bill and a foe of appointments, said the House of Representatives “is rooted in democratic principles, and those principles must be preserved at all costs.”
It has been about 2½ years since the Sept. 11 attacks and the crash in Pennsylvania of United Flight 93, a plane that many believe was destined for the U.S. Capitol.
“Those passengers gave their lives to give us a second chance,” said Representative Brian Baird, a supporter of the broader constitutional approach.
“Eternal shame on us if we do not take action.”
The measure would require special elections within 45 days of the House Speaker confirming that a catastrophic event had left at least 100 of the 435 seats vacant.
Congress considered but never acted on the continuity question during the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, when there was fear that Washington could be obliterated in a nuclear attack.
The current legislation has split the two parties in the House, with many Democrats saying they were not given the chance to offer a constitutional amendment that would allow temporary appointments until special elections could be held.
Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, and ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures.
Mr. Sensenbrenner said expedited elections could get the House back on its feet after a disaster without betraying the democratic underpinnings of the chamber.
As for the possibility of a largely appointed House, he asked: “Is that what the framers of the Constitution had in mind? . . . No way.”
Critics of the 45-day election plan said it is both too short a time for some states to prepare for an election and too long to leave Congress in a paralyzed state.