WASHINGTON – Congressional Republicans have marched nearly in lockstep in their support for keeping brain-damaged woman Terri Schiavo (search) alive, but their affirmation of a "culture of life" in America has drawn criticism that the GOP may be trying to capitalize on a tragic case.
"Obviously, Republicans saw the advantage in this," said Juan Williams, National Public Radio correspondent and FOX News analyst. "I think that is why you saw the extraordinary effort to have a 'Palm Sunday compromise' to bring the Congress together for a 12 a.m. vote in the midst of a recess."
After working throughout the day and evening on Sunday, the House passed a bill 203-58 overnight Monday to move Schiavo's case to a federal court to determine whether Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo (search), or her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler (search), have authority over her fate. Terri Schiavo's parents have fought for seven years in the Florida court system to prevent her death. On Friday, her feeding tube was removed per her husband's wishes and a state court order.
All but five of the 161 Republicans present in the House voted for the measure, while the 100 Democrats who attended the vote were nearly evenly split. One hundred seventy-four members did not return from their Easter recess to cast a vote. The Senate unanimously passed an identical bill on Sunday.
After President Bush signed the bill on Monday, lawyers on both sides turned the matter over to the Federal District Court in Tampa, Fla. On Monday, Bush said he had no choice but to sign the legislation.
"Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together last night to give Terri Schiavo's parents another opportunity to save their daughter's life. This is a complex case with serious issues. But in extraordinary circumstances like this it is wise to always err on the side of life," Bush told supporters attending a Social Security discussion in Tucson, Ariz.
Repeating the "Culture of Life" Appeal
Bush's remarks regarding the Schiavo case have been couched in his "culture of life" language, a phrase the president has previously adopted to describe his anti-abortion views.
As recently as Jan. 25, Bush phoned anti-abortion demonstrators at the 32nd annual march commemorating the 32nd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. While speaking to the crowd, he outlined his "culture of life" policies, including his push to make the murder of an unborn child a capital offense and his support for limiting embryonic stem cell research, both issues expected to be of major focus during Bush's next four years in the White House.
"The strong have a duty to protect the weak," Bush told the January demonstrators. "We are working to promote a culture of life, to promote compassion for women and their unborn babies. We know that in a culture that does not protect the most dependent, the handicapped, the elderly, the unloved or simply inconvenient become increasingly vulnerable."
On Thursday, the president used similar language in a statement affirming his support for federal intervention in the Schiavo case.
"Those who live at the mercy of others deserve our special care and concern. It should be our goal as a nation to build a culture of life, where all Americans are valued, welcomed, and protected — and that culture of life must extend to individuals with disabilities," Bush said.
That kind of language moves longtime supporters of Schiavo's parents and right-to-life groups. Support by Bush and congressional Republicans to transfer Schiavo's case to a federal court won those politicians widespread praise from Terri Schiavo's backers, including those who have held vigil outside her Florida hospice since last week.
But opponents of the action — those who say no state court ruling is safe if Congress can move the jurisdiction of cases that have already been decided — call Congress' intervention completely out of place.
"In the 30 years I've been in Washington, this is one of the most disgusting parts of Congress I've ever seen," Democratic strategist Bob Beckel told FOX News. "Congress is saying, 19 judges in Florida, 19, and over 20 doctors somehow missed something, that these people up here, these yahoos in Congress, think they seem to know. ... The fact is they've overruled people who have been with this woman."
GOP's Ulterior Motives?
Beckel suggested that Randall Terry, head of Operation Rescue, which helped organize the vigils in Florida, pushed GOP lawmakers to act. Others have said that the Republican push for congressional intervention had a more political motivation than GOP lawmakers have let on.
"(They) declare it is about principles," Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said on the House floor before the bill was passed. "Then why did the majority party declare that this is a great political issue?"
Conyers' allegation was referring to a weekend "talking points" memo purportedly circulated by Republicans that claimed congressional involvement in the Schiavo case would excite the right-to-life base. The memo called the case a "great political issue" that could bolster support for Republicans in the 2006 elections.
The authenticity of the memo, which appeared publicly on a Web log and had Terri Schiavo's first name misspelled, was quickly denied by Republicans.
"I have not seen these talking points," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search), R-Texas, said on Sunday. "My question is, have [the memos] been assigned and who put them out? If anyone on my staff put them out they would be immediately dismissed. This is not a political issue."
"I have never seen the memo and reaffirm that the interest in this case by myself, and the many members of the Senate on both sides of the aisle, is to assure that Mrs. Schiavo has another chance at life," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), a strong supporter of granting the case a new hearing under federal review, said in a statement.
Even without the alleged GOP memo, DeLay, who has been beseiged recently by ethics investigations on Capitol Hill as well as bad press surrounding an ongoing grand jury probe into a political action committee he created in Texas, has had his motives questioned. The most familiar GOP face behind federal intervention in the case, DeLay insists this is a moral issue in which the law should be used to save the life of an innocent woman.
"What will it hurt to have a federal judge take a fresh look at all the evidence, and apply it against 15 years' worth of advances in medical technology?" he said Sunday. "We, as Congress, have every right to make sure that the constitutional rights of Terri Schiavo are protected, and that's what we're doing."
Sheri Annis, a Republican media strategist, said Monday she believes that lawmakers who stood up to support Schiavo's parents were thinking of the political gains. But that doesn't necessarily mean they aren't believers in the cause, too.
"They are probably responding to their base, but there is nothing necessarily wrong with that — that's what politicians do and what they are expected to do, and it would be news if they didn't," she said.
Rush to Aid Schiavo May Not Win Points
Forty-seven House Democrats agreed with DeLay's perspective. Conversely, not all Republicans backed Schiavo's parents' perspective. Democrats and Republicans who voted against the measure said the federal government was inappropriately meddling in states' rights as well as family decisions.
"How deep are we going to go into people's personal lives?" asked Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who voted against the bill.
"This rush to exploit a personal tragedy is not fair to those involved and will not create good policy," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Monday.
Lawmakers who claim to be doing the work of their constituents by defending Terri Schiavo may find the public is not as supportive of them as they expected. An ABC News poll released Monday found that a strong majority of Americans don't agree that the federal government should have stepped into this case.
According to the poll, 63 percent of respondents said they support the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube, 60 percent said they oppose legislative action on the case and 70 percent said it was inappropriate for Congress to get involved.
The survey also indicated that respondents' views on the issue were based on their feelings about their own care if they were in the same situation. Of those surveyed, 78 percent said they would not want to be left on artificial life-supporting measures.
"I think [Republicans] have really overstepped it and have miscalculated what the effect would be," said Democratic Pollster Celinda Lake. "As this has gone on and on … people have been moving in a pretty dramatic direction towards the idea that the decision should be made by people, not the government."
But American University politics professor Richard Semiatin said he believes little or no political impact will be achieved by the Schiavo case despite it capturing the nation's attention and sympathy.
"It is very poignant and personal and very much driven by a strong personal story, but come election time it doesn't really resonate much," he said. "They can't talk about winners and losers when it comes down to it, it's just a tragic situation."