Published March 21, 2005
WASHINGTON – Congress' intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo (search) accelerated as Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (search) warned key Republicans that state efforts were faltering. It ended early Monday when President Bush signed a bill designed to save a life.
The intervening few days were marked by legislative and legal maneuvers, lofty talk of morality and political calculation — and a moment of senatorial trust in a Congress where polarization often prevails.
"It is wise to always err on the side of life," President Bush told an audience in Tucson, Ariz., hours after signing the measure. Sponsors hope the bill will prompt a federal judge to order the reinsertion of a feeding tube that provides the nourishment necessary for the brain-damaged Schiavo to survive.
The tube was removed Friday after a state court ruling.
In Florida, Gov. Bush had hoped the Republican-controlled legislature could step in beforehand to keep the tube in place.
But efforts to pry a bill from the legislature failed, and the governor talked with several leaders of both houses of Congress during the week. "He said, 'If there's anything you can do please don't stop. You need to be doing it,'" recalled Sen. Mel Martinez (search), R-Fla.
Republicans in Congress, backed by leaders of the religious right, had long been monitoring the situation — the woman, brain-damaged for 15 years since a heart attack; the prayer vigils outside the hospice where she lives; and the court battles.
Among them was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a physician with presidential ambitions in the party where support from social conservatives is prized.
In remarks on the Senate floor on Thursday, the Tennessee Republican quoted several passages from a medical textbook. He said he had viewed a court-ordered videotape of Schiavo and talked with one of the neurologists who had examined her.
Emphasizing that he was "speaking more as a physician than as a U.S. senator," Frist concluded, "there seems to be insufficient information to conclude that Terri Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state."
He cast her situation in starkly moral terms. "Somebody is being condemned to death, somebody who is alive," he said.
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a prominent abortion foe who faces a difficult re-election race in 2006 and also holds presidential ambitions, also injected himself into the issue.
He told fellow GOP leaders last week he was prepared to hold up passage of any legislation if necessary, including the budget, to force action on a bill to give federal courts jurisdiction in Schiavo's case. These aides spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the confidentiality of the discussions.
Just as in Florida, there were problems finding a compromise that could pass Congress.
The bill that passed the House Wednesday, advanced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner and others, extended beyond Schiavo. A spokesman for Sensenbrenner, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the Wisconsin Republican had worked closely with Schiavo's parents in writing the bill, and added that the National Right to Life Committee had supported his approach. Senate aides in both parties say House leaders had been warned in advance the measure would not make it to the White House.
The predicted opposition arose in the Senate on Thursday. But a few hours later, Senate Democrats and Republicans joined to pass a narrower measure. By this time, the House had adjourned for a two-week Easter vacation.
Politics flared Friday.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas accused three Senate Democrats of having "put Mrs. Schiavo's life at risk to prove a point — an unprecedented profile in cowardice. The American people are not interested in squabbles between Republicans and Democrats, or between the House and Senate."
But Sensenbrenner himself came in for criticism later that evening. James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, a conservative group, said the senator had "personally stopped this rescue effort in the House." Dobson spoke on Fox News Channel's "Hannity and Colmes."
Political calculation surfaced in the Senate, as well, in the form of an unsigned one-page memo circulated to Republicans. "This is a great political issue, because Senator Nelson of Florida has already refused to become a cosponsor and this is a tough issue for Democrats," it said.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat seeking re-election next year, said through a spokesman that injecting politics into the case was despicable.
Top GOP congressional aides had also been working along a second, parallel track in an attempt to force the reinsertion of Schiavo's feeding tube.
This one involved having a House committee subpoena Schiavo's husband and her medical nutrition and hydration equipment "in current operating condition" for a hearing in Florida on March 25. That would have meant leaving the tube in place.
Separately, a Senate committee issued an invitation for Mrs. Schiavo to appear at a hearing.
The subpoena was a long shot, and one GOP aide said there was intense debate over how to word the subpoena "so the judge doesn't see right through it." The move was soon negated by a ruling from Florida Circuit Judge George Greer. Hours later, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene.
By then, most senators had followed members of the House home for Easter. Even so, the effort had resumed to find a legislative compromise.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, in the Middle East, consulted by phone with Frist. Frist offered assurances that if the Senate met, Republicans would conduct no business other than passage of the Schiavo bill. Reid agreed — and in an unusual occurrence, not a single Democrat was in attendance when the bill passed by a voice vote at mid-afternoon on Sunday.
Democratic objections in the House forced Republicans to abandon an effort to pass the measure without a roll call vote. Instead, lawmakers were called back from vacation. The bill passed after midnight and was quickly dispatched to the White House for Bush's post-midnight signature.