WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) has signed a bill designed to save the life of a severely brain-damaged woman, after lawmakers passed the measure at a late-night emergency session of Congress.
The so-called "Palm Sunday Compromise" allows a federal court to review the case of Terri Schiavo (search), whose husband Michael had the feeding tube that keeps her alive removed. The House of Representatives (search) voted 203-58 in favor of the bill shortly after midnight; the Senate unanimously passed it on Sunday afternoon.
The president cut short a visit to his ranch in Crawford, Texas and returned to the White House for a chance to sign the measure, which he did at 1:11 a.m. EST.
"In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life," Bush said in a statement after signing the bill.
Schiavo's father, Bob Schindler, thanked lawmakers but acknowledged that "we still have a few hurdles yet."
"I'm numb, I'm just totally numb. This whole thing, it's hard to believe it," he told reporters outside his daughter's hospice.
An attorney for her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, later arrived at federal district court in Tampa to file a request for an emergency injunction to keep their daughter fed.
It was unclear when the judge might rule once the documents were filed.
"We are very, very, very thankful to cross this bridge. And we are very hopeful that the federal courts will follow the will of Congress and save my sister's life," said Suzanne Vitadamo, Terri Schiavo's sister.
The House opened debate on the bill at 9 p.m. EST on Sunday and debated the measure past midnight.
"As millions of Americans observe the beginning of Holy Week this Palm Sunday we are reminded that every life has purpose and none is without meaning," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a leader in crafting the bill.
But Rep. Jim Davis (search), D-Fla., said the congressional action was "a clear threat to our democracy." Congress, he said, was ignoring the constitutional separation of power and "is on the verge of telling states, courts, judges and juries that their opinions, deliberations and decisions do not matter."
After over three hours of debate, House leaders called for a vote. The measured was backed by 156 Republicans to 5 who voted against it and 71 who did not vote; 47 Democrats voted in favor, 53 against and 102 did not vote. The lone independent in the 435-member house did not vote.
Schiavo's feeding tube was removed Friday upon a district judge's order, after a House lawyers' emergency request to intervene was denied. Congress quickly scrambled to move the case to a different venue, on the chance that a federal court might order an injunction on the removal of Schiavo's tube until it can be determined whether Schiavo's husband, Michael, or her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, have the authority to decide to keep her alive or let her starve to death.
Doctors say Schiavo, 41, is in a persistent vegetative state and will not fully recover from a heart attack she endured 15 years ago. If the case goes to a federal court, Schiavo's tube could be reinserted while the ruling is deliberated. Her parents and siblings insist Schiavo is responsive to their encouragement.
The legislation says the federal court, after determining the merits of the suit, "shall issue such declaratory and injunctive relief as may be necessary to protect the rights" of the woman. Injunctive relief in this case could mean reinserting the feeding tubes.
"The bill guarantees a process to help Terri but does not guarantee a particular outcome. Once a new case is filed, a federal judge can issue a stay at any time," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "The judge has discretion of that particular decision; however, I would expect that a federal judge would grant a stay under these circumstances because Terri would need to live in order for the court to consider the case."
David Gibbs III, the attorney for the Schindlers, said that his office has been in contact with the Federal District Court in Tampa and that he anticipates a filing in the middle of the night. A computer program randomly selects the presiding judge, who will be given the request for an injunction immediately.
Gibbs added that he hoped the court would give the case the same urgency as Congress and the Bush.
"This is a complex case where serious questions and significant doubts have been raised, and the president believes the presumption ought to be in favor of life, that we ought to err on the side of life in a case like this," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said aboard Air Force One on the way back to the capital.
"This legislation, [in] my understanding, is narrowly tailored and would give the parents another opportunity to save their daughter's life in federal courts," he said.
Congress is stepping into a family matter, added Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (search), D-Fla., who argued that the state court determined that Schiavo had made known her wish not to be kept alive in this condition. "It is not the Congress' place to say 'yes' or 'no,'" about Schiavo's fate, she said.
Lawmakers supporting the replacement of Schiavo's tube argued that the legislation should not face objection because it has a very narrow focus. Federal review would only apply in cases in which an incapacitated person has no written advance directive, the family disputes the individual's fate and a state judge has ordered withdrawal of the food and water that would keep the individual alive.
Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., added that he hasn't seen Schiavo, but as a physician, the evidence suggests she was wrongly classified as being in a vegetative state. For instance, he said, Schiavo's responsiveness to people who are close to her rather than merely in the room likely can be attributed to damaged vision rather than lack of power to respond.
Schiavo's mother insists that her daughter should be kept alive because she is not in the condition that doctors have said. She added her request that congressional members not politicize Terri Schiavo's case.
"Gentlemen, don't use this bill as your own personal agenda. I am pleading with the moms and the dads to call their congressman and help them pass this bill for Terri," Mary Schindler said.
On Saturday, Michael Schiavo criticized House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search), R-Texas, who helped broker the congressional compromise.
"He's sitting up there saying that Terri wants to live. How does he know? Has he ever met her? No. He hasn't met me," Schiavo said on a morning news show.
On Sunday, it was reported that he refused to permit Schiavo's family into the hospice room where Terri Schiavo is housed.
Congress' action has led to several questions about its role in determining matters that are largely left up to families. National Public Radio correspondent Juan Williams, a FOX News contributor, said the Legislature has completely overstepped its boundaries.
"It looks like total opportunism on the part of Republicans," Williams said on "FOX News Sunday." Weekly Standard publisher Bill Kristol reminded Williams that the bill also has the support of Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez (search) told "FOX News Sunday" that the issue has brought both parties together on Capitol Hill.
"All we're doing is seeking a federal review of what has happened in the state courts to ensure that all the constitutional rights, all of the basic protections that we afford a criminal have been afforded to Terri Schiavo as well. And a federal judge in the district of Florida is the right place to do that," Martinez said.
He added that anyone who thinks this bill will set a precedent is misguided, since it's a private relief bill that specifically names Schiavo's family in the legislation.
Terri Schiavo suffered severe brain damage in 1990, when her heart stopped briefly because of a chemical imbalance. She can breathe on her own, but has relied on the feeding tube to keep her alive.
In 2001, Schiavo went without food and water for two days before a judge ordered the tube reinserted. When the tube was removed in October 2003, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (search) pushed through "Terri's Law," and six days later the tube was reinserted.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled in September 2004 that Bush had overstepped his authority, declaring the law unconstitutional.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.