WASHINGTON – The Terri Schiavo (search) case has been catapulted from a drawn-out medical and legal battle into a fast-paced political drama with Congress, the White House and the courts playing leading roles.
Republicans see a vote for prolonging the life of the brain-damaged Florida woman as an opportunity to strengthen their support among religious conservatives, a vital constituency group, ahead of next year's congressional elections.
For the most part, minority-party Democrats are asserting that congressional involvement in such a heart-wrenching private matter is unwarranted and unwise. But they are treading carefully, not wanting again to get clobbered on the "values" issue that hurt them in last year's elections.
Schiavo and members of her family have "become political pawns to larger political issues," Rep. Jim Moran (search), D-Va., said Sunday. "This is an issue that should be left to the state courts."
But Moran raised a distinction not lost on Democrats in other parts of the country: "I can't say necessarily that I'm speaking for my constituents."
So many parts of the drama were in motion over the weekend after Schiavo's feeding tube was removed on Friday at the direction of a Florida judge.
President Bush (search) rushed back from spring break vacation at his Texas ranch to be on hand to sign legislation that supporters said would allow a federal judge to order the feeing tube reinserted.
Lawmakers were returning to the Capitol to try to pass a last-minute compromise. As GOP leaders scrambled to get enough members for a quorum, Schiavo's parents notified her hospice to prepare to have the tube reinserted.
Not since the case of 6-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez in 2000 have national leaders so involved themselves in such a personal issue.
Gonzalez survived a shipwreck that killed his mother and 10 others who were fleeing Cuba. His Miami relatives balked at returning him to his father in Cuba, but the Clinton administration did just that after court appeals and GOP-led efforts to declare the boy a U.S. citizen failed.
Republicans were quick to embrace legislation to prolong the life of Schiavo, who suffered brain damage in a heart attack 15 years ago. Her husband and parents have been in a long legal battle.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a physician, urged the Senate to side with the parents and "give Terri Schiavo one last chance at life."
An unsigned one-page memo, distributed to Republican senators, called it "an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue."
The memo, reported first by ABC News and the Washington Post and later obtained by The Associated Press, added that "this is a tough issue for Democrats."
It was not known who originated the memo or initially put it into circulation.
"It's a very complicated case, but it can be boiled down to simple human values. It's a story people can rally around," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "This is the `values' issue writ large again. And the divide couldn't be clearer between the two parties."
The issue has a dramatic impact because of video tapes that show Schiavo in her hospice bed with her mother and because of her parents' dogged campaign to keep their daughter alive.
"She is responsive. She does try to vocalize. She emotes. ... And, at least according to the family, she is still in that kind of condition where she responds," said Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla. He is a sponsor of the legislation to order her feeding tube reinserted until a federal judge reviews the case.
Critics of congressional intervention cite doctors who say the 41-year-old woman is in a persistent vegetative state.
Schiavo could linger for one or two weeks if the tube is not reinserted — as has happened twice before.
"Hours do matter at this point," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters as Bush rushed back to town.
McClellan shrugged off suggestions of a political component to Bush's response. But the issue has mobilized religious conservatives and has become a dominant topic on conservative talk radio.
It has also provided House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, a role that helps deflect heat on him for alleged fund-raising improprieties and possible violation of House travel rules.
Critics suggest it is hypocrisy for a Congress that espouses federalism to get involved in case that has exhausted appeals in Florida courts.
"It is particularly hypocritical when you have people who say they advocate on behalf of the defense of marriage who now insert themselves between a husband and his wife," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.
"It is not Congress' place to say yes or no" on the feeding tube issue, she said.