WASHINGTON – Terri Schiavo's (search) personal tragedy is taking on a more political tone in Congress, where House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) likens the struggle over her fate to attacks on himself, and a Democratic critic accuses Republicans of opportunism.
"I find it shameful that Mr. DeLay and Republicans have used Ms. Schiavo as their political pawn to kowtow to their conservative base," Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., said Wednesday as House GOP leaders filed court papers in an increasingly desperate attempt to keep the brain-damaged Florida woman alive.
"It's unfortunate that he thinks his situation is like Terri Schiavo's," added Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the House Democratic campaign committee. "That's a distorted view."
For his part, DeLay cast the debate over Schiavo in religious and political terms at the same time.
"One thing that God has brought to us is Terri Schiavo to elevate the visibility of what is going on in America, that Americans would be so barbaric as to pull a feeding tube out of a person that is lucid and starve them to death," he said in remarks Friday to a conservative group and made public Wednesday.
"This is exactly the issue that is going on in America, of attacks against the conservative movement, against me and against many others," added DeLay, lately at the center of a controversy concerning his overseas travel.
DeLay's remarks were made public by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a liberal group. Dan Allen, a spokesman for the majority leader, accused Democrats and their allies of "launching politically motivated attacks questioning the motives of those trying to save Terry Schiavo."
The developments occurred as polls continued to show the public takes a dim view of congressional moves to step into Schiavo's case.
CBS reported that 82 percent of those surveyed want President Bush and Congress to stay out of the situation and that 74 percent said Congress was motivated by political considerations, not concern for Schiavo. At the same time, congressional job approval has dropped to its lowest level since 1997, according to the poll.
Until recently, Congress had played a largely peripheral part in the life-and-death drama unfolding at a hospice in Florida. Driven by majority Republicans, the House and Senate intervened late last week when it appeared that efforts by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (search) and others in the state to prevent removal of Schiavo's feeding tube were failing.
Schiavo, 41, has been incapacitated since 1990, when she suffered a heart attack and subsequent brain damage. Court-appointed doctors have diagnosed her as in a persistent vegetative state, meaning she is unable to respond voluntarily and has virtually no hope of recovery.
Her husband and parents have battled for years in the courts, he saying he wanted to disconnect her feeding tube in accordance with what he says were her previously expressed wishes, and they arguing she should be kept alive.
Under the terms of a court order, the tube was disconnected on Friday, as the Republican-controlled Congress was taking steps to prevent it.
On Wednesday, DeLay, along with House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other House Republicans filed court papers arguing that legislation passed early Monday demanded the issuance of an order to resume feeding.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Republican Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Mel Martinez of Florida filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court late Wednesday, siding with Schiavo's parents.
At the same time, a House committee scrapped plans to hold a Good Friday hearing at Schiavo's hospice.
A Senate committee pressed ahead with plans to hold a hearing on Monday in Washington on health issues raised by Schiavo's case, although some GOP officials said they expected it, too, to be put off. Republicans at one point had talked of placing a video or audio recorder in Schiavo's hospice room as part of the session, according to two officials familiar with the discussions, but have now discarded the idea.
DeLay criticized Democrats sharply late last week after the Senate blocked House-passed legislation relating to Schiavo before passing its own, more narrow bill. His remarks to the Family Research Council the same day veered into politics.
"The point is the other side has figured out how to win and defeat the conservative movement," he said after mentioning Schiavo, "and that is to go after people personally, charge them with frivolous charges and link that up with all these do-gooder organizations funded by George Soros and then get the national media on their side.
"That whole syndicate that they have going on right now is for one purpose and one purpose only, and that's to destroy the conservative movement. It's to destroy conservative leaders."
Soros is a billionaire who contributed several million dollars last year to the unsuccessful effort to deny President Bush a second term.