Cornyn Seeks Fix on Succession

Posted July 23, 2004 at 6:50pm

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) wants to ensure that if Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) wins in November, his Cabinet choices will be nominated by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate before noon on Jan. 20, 2005.

Not that Cornyn wants to see his fellow Texas Republican lose. And his reasons are more fundamental than party comity or facilitating early successes by a Kerry administration. Cornyn wants to make sure an intact line of presidential succession is ready in the event that the president and vice president are killed before their Cabinet is nominated and confirmed.

Under Cornyn’s plan, the president-elect would nominate, and the Senate would confirm, individuals to posts in the line of succession between Jan. 3 and Jan. 20.

The resolution states: “[W]henever control of the White House shall change from one political party to another, the outgoing President and the incoming President should work together, and with the Senate to the extent determined appropriate by the Senate, to ensure a smooth transition of executive power, in the interest of the American people.”

The country faces a particular vulnerability on Inauguration Day, which has been repeatedly cited by the Homeland Security Department as a terrorist target, because all three branches of government are well represented on the West Front for the swearing-in.

Regardless of whether a new president is sworn in, the Constitution dictates that the outgoing president’s term ends at noon Jan. 20. Per tradition, the outgoing president’s Cabinet resigns before the ceremony, leaving the federal agencies run by acting secretaries — little-known assistants and deputies who could become commander-in-chief if the Speaker and the Senate President Pro Tem were killed along with the president and vice president.

“That means that, in the event of a successful inaugural day attack, the official who could rise to become acting president, perhaps serving four full years, could very well be a member of the outgoing administration — indeed, a member of the political party that the American people expelled from office at the most recent election,” Cornyn said in a floor statement Thursday before introducing the measure.

“As the resolution acknowledges,” Cornyn continued, “Members of the Senate, regardless of political party affiliation, agree that the American people deserve a government that is fail-safe and foolproof. And we agree that, at a minimum, terrorists should never have the ability … to change the political party that is in control of the government — a principle that applies regardless of which party is in power.”

Although the resolution he introduced is non-binding, Cornyn hopes it will begin to establish a protocol that future administrations and Congresses will follow. A half-dozen scholars of various ideologies have written Cornyn supporting his approach.

Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) co-sponsored with Cornyn a similar resolution introduced in February. It was a joint resolution, however, while this version would only require approval of the Senate.