TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Working on at least four fronts, lawmakers and lawyers in Florida and in Washington raced to prevent the removal of a brain-damaged Terri Schiavo's (search) feeding tube, but their options appeared to dwindle Thursday as the hours slipped away.
Under court order, the feeding tube was set to be removed at 1 p.m. Friday, in what could be the final act in the long-running right-to-die drama.
The Florida House passed a bill 78-37 to block the withholding of food and water from patients in a persistent vegetative state who did not leave specific instructions regarding their care. But hours later, the Senate defeated a different measure 21-16, and one of the nine Republicans voting against indicated that any further votes would be futile.
"As far as we're concerned we don't want anything to change the existing law," said Sen. Jim King.
As part of the last-minute flurry of activity, Congress was considering legislation to keep the feeding tube in place, Schiavo's parents appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Florida judge who approved the withdrawal of food and water denied a request from the state to keep the woman alive. The state appealed that decision to the Florida Supreme Court, which promptly dismissed it.
"Everything is a longshot," said David Gibbs, attorney for Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler.
Schiavo suffered severe brain damage in 1990 when her heart stopped because of a chemical imbalance, and court-appointed doctors say she is in a persistent vegetative state. Her husband, Michael Schiavo (search), says she told him she would not want to be kept alive artificially. Her parents dispute that, and say she could get better.
Doctors have said it could take a week or two for Schiavo to die once the tube that delivers water and nutrients is removed.
Republican Gov. Jeb Bush (search) has strongly urged the Legislature to pass a bill that would save Schiavo, as it did in 2003. That law allowed Bush to order doctors to restore Schiavo's feeding tube six days after it had been removed. But that law was later declared unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court.
Bush acknowledged Thursday that state legislation to intervene was halted.
"The bill is certainly not dead, but it does appear that they're having some difficulty," he said. "I'm just disappointed, but that's their decision."
The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Daniel Webster, said he might withdraw the measure Friday.
"I can count votes," Webster said.
In Congress, the U.S. House passed legislation late Wednesday, but several senators refused to pass the House bill and the Senate approved its own version Thursday afternoon allowing Schiavo's parents to appeal their case to federal court.
It was not immediately known whether the House would take the bill up, with many representatives already headed home for Easter recess.
"House Republicans knew we had a moral obligation to act and we did just that last night," said Speaker Dennis Hastert (search) of Illinois and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) of Texas. "As Terri Schiavo lays helpless in Florida, one day away from the unthinkable and unforgivable, the Senate Democrats refused to join Republicans to act on her behalf."
Also, Schiavo's parents filed an emergency motion at the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the removal of the feeding tube so lower courts could consider whether their daughter's religious freedom and other rights have been violated.
The state Department of Children & Families had requested a delay in the removal of the feeding tube while the agency investigates allegations Terri Schiavo was abused, but Pinellas Circuit Court Judge George Greer and an appeals court denied the request Thursday.
State Republicans who supported legislation to keep Schiavo alive said lawmakers have a responsibility to act on her behalf. "Sanctity of life is a Republican principle, and we stand on the side of sanctity of life," party Chairwoman Carole Jean Jordan said.
Republican state Rep. Kevin Ambler said: "This provides a safety net where the government stands up for the vulnerable who don't otherwise have a voice."
Critics of the efforts have accused Gov. Bush and the GOP of pandering to the religious right. Some have also questioned whether the campaign runs counter to Republican principles of less government and more freedom.
"If that's your standard operating procedure, then how in the world can you justify putting state government on the back of the most personal decision a family would have to make?" asked University of South Florida government professor Darryl Paulson. "It's a political lightning rod — fundamentally the wrong position for the Republican Party."
The White House was cautious Thursday not to comment on any specific legislation. Yet in a statement, President Bush left little doubt where he stands.
"The case of Terri Schiavo raises complex issues," he said. "Yet in instances 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. Those who live at the mercy of others deserve our special care and concern."