Congress crafting doomsday plan

WASHINGTON — Eight months after Sept. 11, top House leaders are struggling to devise a plan to repopulate the House if a catastrophic terrorist attack kills its members.

Meeting for the first time Thursday, a bipartisan special committee contemplated what would happen if only a few House members survived an attack and were faced with rebuilding a government.

The possibility, they agreed, is not farfetched.

“We know that people want to kill us,” said Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash.

“We know that they can get weapons of mass destruction. And we know if they do, we are dead — the Congress, the president, the vice president and the Supreme Court. We can’t leave the American people wondering, now what?”

Many legislators are convinced that the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was headed for the Capitol, the most visible symbol of American democracy.

While President Bush has created a “shadow government” at a remote undisclosed location that could keep the federal administration functioning after a massive attack on the city, Congress cannot have a shadow legislature.

Congress also is looking at remote places where it could meet after a catastrophic attack on Washington. Senate officials this week scouted sites 1,000 miles from the capital.

The special committee, led by Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., chairman of the House Republican Conference, and Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, chairman of the Democratic Congress, considered this doomsday scenario:

Only five members, who happen to be out of town at the time, survive after an attack kills all other House members, the president and vice president.

The present rules require only a majority of living members to make up a quorum. If only five survived, then three would be free to act as the House, appointing a speaker who would be next in the line of presidential succession.

The remaining members would serve as the House until special elections replaced the dead. That could take six months.

The Senate could be replaced in days because governors replace dead senators. But the House has always prided itself as coming from the people.

Many House members worry that the country would not accept the authority of so few people, especially since the House would pick the next president.

“There would be the enormous question of the legitimacy of the president if it were one of these people elected by four others who were representing the nation,” said Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., who is chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee.

Perhaps more dangerous would be a biological attack such as anthrax or smallpox that could incapacitate hundreds of House members. Since the House must have a quorum of a majority of living members to operate, it could be shut down by a mass illness.

But fixing the problem is not easy, and may not be quick.

Baird, of Washington state, has proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow state governors to appoint House members if 25 percent of the members are killed in an attack. They would serve only until special elections could be held.

A constitutional amendment would take years.

Another proposal would allow a House member to provide a list of successors. Some analysts worry that would lead to a candidate running as a slate. A candidate might put a celebrity on his list to draw attention to himself.

Former Democratic Speaker Tom Foley and former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, who battled for control of the House in 1994, are now working together on a bipartisan solution.

“I don’t see it as far-fetched at all,” Foley said of the possibility of a massive attack. “We need to see to it that the center of American democracy continues to function.”

During the Cold War when a Soviet attack would have meant nuclear annihilation, about 30 constitutional amendments were proposed to deal with this problem. None came to a vote.

Now the threat may be more dangerous, said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, who has been working on solutions. During the Cold War, strategists assumed an attack would come with enough warning to evacuate Congress to safety. But a terrorist with a nuclear bomb in a van would give no warning.

Cox said a proposal should be ready by year’s end, and the new Congress could consider it early next year.

But Frost likened the process to getting someone to sign his own will.

“A person will delay coming in to sign his own will,” he said, “because the act of signing the will is a recognition that he might not be around.”

Gil Klein is a reporter in Media General’s Washington bureau.

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