The House Republican leadership, frustrated by what it perceives as unacceptable inaction by the Senate on continuity of Congress legislation, last week attached a measure to an appropriations bill that would expedite special elections in the event of mass casualties.
Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the original sponsor of the legislation that was attached to the legislative branch appropriations bill, has said repeatedly that he views the issue as one of comity between the chambers. To that end, his measure was attached to the “House” portion of the legislative branch funding bill — traditionally an area that the Senate passes without modification, out of respect for the other chamber. (Likewise, the House usually passes without change the Senate’s portion of the appropriations bill to fund Congressional operations.)
But at least a handful of Senators don’t view the issue of continuity of Congress as something that the House gets to decide on it’s own. And it is widely believed that at least one of those Senators has a hold on the stand-alone version of the bill.
And that might not bode well for the House’s strategy, which is to attach it to a “must pass” spending bill that would force the Senate’s hand. Because the amendment amounts to “legislating” on a spending bill, it would likely be subject to a point of order in the Senate, and that’s if it ever made it out of the conference committee intact.
The provision made it out of the House Appropriations Committee on a party-line vote, with Democrats loudly voicing “no” votes to a nearly silent “aye” vote on the Republican side of the committee. The panel’s chairman, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), included it with much reluctance and said repeatedly that Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) essentially made him do it.
“While it is not my normal inclination to support legislation” added to an appropriations bill, he called the issue a “special case.”
“I know you’ll be very patient with me regarding the decision I just made,” Lewis said after he ruled the voice vote in favor of adding the measure to the bill.
Given that the stand-alone bill overwhelmingly passed the House earlier this session by a vote of 329-68, it would seem that the matter was relatively noncontroversial, or at the very least nonpartisan. But Democrats were objecting to the process by which the House has taken up continuity measures generally, and some have more specific concerns about the text of the legislation.
The bill would mandate that states hold special elections to replace House Members who died in a large-scale terrorist attack or other disaster that killed more than 100 lawmakers. It would require that such elections take place within 49 days of such an event — a time frame many election experts and others have called potentially unreasonable.
But the biggest problem that many lawmakers in both chambers have with taking up the bill is the prospect of not debating it simultaneously with broader legislation and a possible constitutional amendment that many scholars believe is necessary to fully address the complex issue of continuity of Congress.
“I think this illustrates we’re voting on this in a vacuum,” Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) said at the hearing Thursday. Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.