WASHINGTON – "Reid and Senate dems have been helpful thruout," Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) messaged fellow Republican senators privately during pressured negotiations on legislation designed to save Terri Schiavo (search). The atmosphere was little different in the House, though Democratic opponents wanted extra time for debate and an on-the-record vote last weekend before allowing the final bill to pass.
The attitude marked an exception for a minority not accustomed to muting its opposition, a reflection of Schiavo's personal tragedy and the desire of many Democratic lawmakers to support the bill — or at least avoid opposing it.
The party didn't want to be on the wrong side of "the culture of life," (search) said one Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Add to that their hope — fanned by recent polls — that Republicans would wind up paying a political price by offending large segments of the electorate out of a desire to appeal to social conservatives.
"That's why we have just been sort of keeping our mouths shut on this," said a second Democratic aide, explaining the strategy on condition of anonymity.
If the Republicans were prodded to action by one part of their political base, there was no countervailing pressure from organizations aligned with the Democrats. Not that they weren't hoping to gain quickly from the GOP drive to intervene, especially with polls showing as much as 70 to 80 percent of the public wanted politicians to stay out of Schiavo's family struggle.
Elliot Mincberg of People for The American Way said Thursday he hoped fallout from the Schiavo case would hamper GOP efforts to change Senate rules and speed confirmation of controversial Bush court appointees.
Speaking of Republicans who are undecided on the rules change, he said, "When they look at the Schiavo case and look at where leadership led them and look at the fact that 70 percent of the people are against them, we'd hope they'd think two, three or four times before plunging over the cliff."
Whatever their private qualms, Democrats offered virtually no criticism when Frist brought legislation to the floor on Thursday after two earlier bills had been blocked. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., presumably speaking for more than himself, said, "From my perspective it is still a mistake, and I intend to vote no if there is a roll call vote."
By prior agreement, there was none.
Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, facing a potentially difficult race in 2006, said of Schiavo, "Her parents want to give her a chance. I think of my own daughter. We ought to give her a chance."
Sen. Bill Nelson from Schiavo's home state, also on the ballot in 2006, noted changes made from an earlier version of the legislation. He said he supported the bill "so that this case can be reviewed and decided in a timely manner."
Democrats engaged in a more spirited debate in the House, arguing that Republicans were abandoning their belief in states' rights and inviting other families torn as Schiavo's relatives are to seek relief in Congress.
"Separation of powers. When they wrote the Constitution they were not kidding around," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.
"Congress deals with broad policy. Individual adjudications are made by judges, with cases of lawyers and presentations and evidence. None of that has happened here."
Republicans at times have challenged the medical diagnosis made by court-retained physicians, who found Schiavo to be in a persistent vegetative state.
Rep. Trent Frank, R-Ariz., said Schiavo "is awake and is able to hear, she is able to see, she is often alert."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas referred to her as "lucid" in remarks to the Family Research Council.
Frist, a heart surgeon and senator with White House ambitions, questioned the physicians' diagnosis in a Senate speech. He said he had viewed a videotape of Schiavo, read medical documents submitted to court and talked to a neurologist who had seen her.
Democratic rebuttal was indirect.
"We do not have the expertise or the facts in enough details to get into these kinds of decisions and make decisions on these kinds of cases," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, a newcomer to Congress who first struggled with the issue while in the state legislature.
"The legislature is a political venue, it is not an objective venue," she said later in an interview. "And it's the last place where most families would ever want a right to die case to be decided."