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Baird Amendment Slated for Floor

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday reported out adversely an amendment to the Constitution that would allow for the temporary appointment of Members in the event large numbers were killed or incapacitated.

Despite the unfavorable recommendation, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has indicated that the full House likely will vote on the resolution, drafted by Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), before the May recess.

Repeated assertions by lawmakers from both parties that a subject so fundamental to the institution was by its nature nonpartisan were belied by the 17-12 party-line vote. Committee Republicans all voted against the proposal and panel Democrats unanimously supported it. Several motions to postpone the markup so that hearings could be held not only on Baird’s amendment language but also those authored by three of his colleagues’ failed along the same partisan breakdown.

At his Tuesday press briefing, DeLay criticized Democrats for rebuffing what he described as legitimate GOP efforts to reach across the aisle on the issue.

“We tried desperately to make continuity … a bipartisan effort,” DeLay said, adding that Democrats continued to complain even after Republicans acceded to their demands for a floor vote.

During consideration of his bill last week to expedite special elections to within 45 days after more than 100 Members have been killed, which passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support, Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) indicated he would mark up and report out Baird’s constitutional amendment. That promise followed protracted discussions between Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on how the House could handle the issue with more comity than has characterized debate in recent months.

But Baird and three colleagues — Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and John Larson (D-Conn.) — who have introduced proposals to solve the continuity problem by amending the Constitution, want more than what they believe has been perfunctory treatment from the Judiciary Committee. The subcommittee on the Constitution held one hearing during the last Congress.

“Because each proposal is unique and deserving of individual consideration, we request a series of hearings to consider the proposals, allowing the House to hear from legislators, scholars and officials who have spent a considerable amount of time studying the issue,” Baird, Lofgren and Rohrabacher wrote to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sensenbrenner and ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.).

Rohrabacher also sent a letter this week to DeLay regarding the rule the Republican leadership plans to adopt for consideration of Baird’s proposal. According to his chief of staff, Rick Dykema, Rohrabacher requested that any rule allow his proposal to be offered as a substitute.

“All of the authors of the measures are for consideration of all of the proposals,” Dykema said. “The issue has been out there, but it probably has not had enough [time], in fact that’s what the letter says, it needs more consideration and hearings by the committee. And not just put one [amendment] out there expecting it to be voted down.”

Indeed, Baird has expressed considerable disquietude about his bill being the only one considered by the committee and taken to the floor. He has acknowledged that he expects it to fail to garner the two-thirds majority necessary for passage, but blames that at least in part on the leadership’s refusal to foster and encourage open discussion among Members.

Judiciary spokesman Jeff Lungren said before the markup that it would be “a bit silly to take up four constitutional amendments really dealing with the same issue” and promised “a full and open debate on an issue that the chairman views as very important.”

But panel Democrats made clear they felt the issue has been treated neither fully nor openly.

“I think our procedure is totally wrong. The subcommittee in the last Congress had one brief hearing,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said, adding that those who support discussion of options not sanctioned by the GOP leadership are being “railroaded.”

Sensenbrenner replied that he was “somewhat puzzled and amused by all these calls for a hearing” given the fact that Baird has circulated a discharge petition (which now has 84 signatures, all Democrats) seeking to bypass that very process and bring the issue to the floor.

“Why circumscribe the process that you are advocating take place?” Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) added.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) replied that Baird is “forced into the odd and unfortunate legislative procedure because he is struggling for air.”

After the hearing, Baird said all he has wanted since Sept. 11, 2001, was for the House to seriously consider all the options and only sought to bring the issue to the floor after Sensenbrenner stifled debate. Baird sought guidance Wednesday from the Parliamentarian as to whether his discharge petition was still viable after Judiciary marked up his resolution. He learned that House rules permit such petitions for reported bills as well as those that languish in committee.

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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