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Congress considers scenarios for what to do if calamity strikes

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There are lots of disaster contingencies in Washington. The president has a line of succession. There are designated escape routes, underground bunkers and preparedness experts at the ready. But what would happen in Congress if things went terribly wrong? A group of lawmakers is trying to think through some scenarios. Some of them might seem wild. But they present some very real and very tricky questions. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has more.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: What if all the electricity goes out, air traffic is down and Washington grinds to a halt? What if a portion of the country is unable to have an election?

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ED PERLMUTTER: This isn't just a hypothetical anymore.

SNELL: That's Congressman Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat, speaking at a hearing where all of those scenarios were floated by lawmakers as disasters that could really happen. Perlmutter pointed to 2017, when a gunman shot at Republican members practicing for a charity baseball game, and the January 6 attack on the Capitol, where armed rioters were yards away from where members hid. Derek Kilmer, the chairman of the Select Committee on Modernization of Congress, said this is an ongoing concern. But this hearing was the most in-depth conversation Congress has had about the topic since the response to the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001.

DEREK KILMER: At the State of the Union this year, it struck me that, you know, if, God forbid, something happened to the Capitol, under the current law, Congress would be consistent of the people who had COVID and the folks who were boycotting.

SNELL: That's because those people were the only ones who weren't in the building. Former Congressman Brian Baird, a Democrat, told the committee that with razor-thin majorities in Congress, any one of those events, including the shooting, could have left the country in a crisis.

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BRIAN BAIRD: The reality is, had 20 members of the Republican conference been killed that day, the balance of power in the House of Representatives would have changed.

SNELL: And the Senate?

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BAIRD: One assassination can change the balance of power in the Senate. And that affects the Supreme Court for a lifetime.

SNELL: Former congresswoman, Cabinet member and one-time designated survivor Donna Shalala told the committee, things become more complicated if the two parties are affected unevenly.

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DONNA SHALALA: We don't want to shift from one party to another just because a certain party lost more members.

SNELL: But George Rogers, a former general counsel for the House Rules Committee, testified that the House faces a whole additional layer of trouble. The Constitution requires House vacancies to be filled by a special election, not appointment.

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GEORGE ROGERS: The founders didn't want appointments. At no point did Madison talk about the politically connected picking their successors.

SNELL: Special elections can take 150 days to complete. That could leave the House hobbled. And it opens a new question. Would House rules even allow them to legislate if a majority of lawmakers are dead or incapacitated? And what if people can't decide who's really in charge? The committee's top Republican, William Timmons of South Carolina, went down that rabbit hole.

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WILLIAM TIMMONS: Designated survivor kind of situation - we've all seen the show. He's getting sworn in as acting president. You got 30 members of Congress who are sitting here saying, well, we're going to elect a speaker. That new speaker then is going to say, I'm the president. And the designated survivor is going to say, well, are you? Then they're going to say, well, let's go to the Supreme Court. Oh, there's no Supreme Court. What do we do?

SNELL: Some of the experts recommended a constitutional amendment to allow House members to be replaced by appointment. Here's Kilmer again.

KILMER: For what it's worth, it took a constitutional amendment to lay out a process through which vacancies in the United States Senate get filled. Interestingly enough, that has not happened for the House.

SNELL: But in the wake of COVID closures and ongoing cybersecurity fears, there is real pressure to come up with an answer soon.

Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.