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March 21, 2005
Congress Passes and Bush Signs Legislation on Schiavo Case
ASHINGTON, Monday, March 21 - The House early Monday gave final Congressional approval to legislation that would allow a federal court to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, and the measure was signed quickly at the White House by President Bush, who flew back to Washington from his Texas ranch on Sunday.
Despite protests from some Democrats who accused Republicans of inappropriately injecting Congress into medical decisions related to the severely brain damaged Florida woman, the House voted 203 to 58 for the bill at the end of four tumultuous days and an emotional debate that began Sunday night at 9 and ended shortly after midnight.
Voting yes were 156 Republicans and 47 Democrats, while 53 Democrats and 5 Republicans voted no.
The Senate, with no objections, approved the measure Sunday afternoon by a voice vote with just a few senators on hand. Its backers hope that it will result in a federal court order as quickly as Monday to restore a feeding tube that was removed Friday afternoon at the direction of a state judge.
President Bush said in a statement just after 1 a.m.: "In cases 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. This presumption is especially critical for those like Terri Schiavo, who live at the mercy of others."
Before the House vote, Representative Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, who has led the effort, urged his colleagues to act. "Every hour is incredibly important to Terri Schiavo," Mr. DeLay said.
Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, acknowledged that such concerted Congressional action on behalf of a single person was highly unusual.
"These are extraordinary circumstances that center on the most fundamental of human values and virtues: the sanctity of human life," said Senator Frist, who is a physician.
While the Senate acted without any objection, the bill ran into resistance from some House Democrats, who said the Republican-led Congress had overstepped its authority by inserting itself into what was a family matter best left to state authorities.
"These actions today are a clear threat to our democracy," said Representative Jim Davis of Florida, one of three Democrats from Ms. Schiavo's home state who joined others in temporarily stalling the bill.
The Democrats' refusal to allow the bill to pass without a roll-call vote prevented the House from taking up the measure early Sunday afternoon and sent Republican leaders scurrying to summon lawmakers scattered for the Easter recess back to Washington to provide a quorum.
House rules required that such a vote could not occur until Monday, so the Republican leaders suspended the vote until Monday morning so they had time to assemble at least 218 of the 435 House members.
As the House opened debate just after 9 p.m., Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Ms. Schiavo needed to be protected from a "merciless directive" from a state judge.
"The Florida courts have brought Terri and the nation to an ugly crossroads by commanding medical professionals sworn to protect life to end Terri's life," Mr. Sensenbrenner said.
But Representative Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat and an opponent of the bill, told colleagues that Congress was substituting its judgment for that of the Florida judges and doctors who have been intimately involved in the case.
"This is heart-wrenching for all Americans," Mr. Wexler said. "But the issue before this Congress is not an emotional one. It is simply one that respects the rule of law."
With just a few senators on hand for an emergency session on a rainy Sunday, the Senate quickly approved the legislation. Its authors hope the measure leads to a federal court order to resume providing nutrition to Ms. Schiavo over the objections of her husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo. A series of state court decisions have sided with him.
The mood in the Capitol was subdued as members of both parties gathered to plot strategy. Some said the atmosphere reminded them of a vote on going to war, colored by a life-and-death decision.
"I have been here 13 years," said Representative Donald Manzullo, Republican of Illinois, "and I have never seen anything like this before."
The session was extraordinary for a number of reasons, including its falling on a Sunday and in the middle of the Easter recess for Congress.
The House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, who was traveling in the Middle East, issued a statement critical of the legislation and its authors. "The actions of the majority in attempting to pass constitutionally dubious legislation are highly irregular and an improper use of legislative authority," Ms. Pelosi said. "Michael Schiavo is faced with a devastating decision, but having been through the proper legal process, the decision for his wife's care belongs to him and to God."
Ms. Schiavo, who is 41, suffered extensive brain damage 15 years ago when her heart stopped briefly, probably because of a potassium deficiency. Since then, she has remained in what doctors have described as a "persistent vegetative state."
Her condition and whether to remove the feeding tube that has kept her alive contributed to an estrangement between Ms. Schiavo's husband and her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, which led to the court battles.
Mr. Schiavo said Sunday that he was outraged that Congress had intervened, criticizing Mr. DeLay, in particular, for what he said were politically motivated moves.
"I think that the Congress has more important things to discuss," Mr. Schiavo told CNN.
Ms. Schiavo's mother, meanwhile, issued a national appeal for parents to call their Congressional representatives and pressure them to vote for the bill to prolong her daughter's life.
"There are some congressmen that are trying to stop this bill," Mrs. Schindler told reporters gathered outside her daughter's hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla. "Please don't use my daughter's suffering for your own personal agenda."
The steady flow of House members back to the Capitol was just one aspect of the extreme efforts being made on behalf of Ms. Schiavo, whose parents would be empowered to ask a federal court to intercede as a result of the legislation - first to restore her feeding tube while the court reaches a decision.
David Gibbs, a lawyer for Ms. Schiavo's parents, said Sunday that he was prepared to file suit as soon as the bill was signed and that he had asked the Federal District Court in Tampa to remain open to receive the papers. A computer program will decide which of the court's seven judges will hear the case, as is routine there. Mr. Gibbs also filed a request with a federal appeals court for an injunction to have the tube reinserted once the bill is passed, The Associated Press reported.
Though some conservative Republicans had been trying to put the Schiavo case on the Congressional radar for weeks, activity did not accelerate until the removal of the feeding tube. Last Wednesday, the House adopted a broader bill that would open the federal courts to advocates of all such "incapacitated persons"; the Senate took a narrower approach confined strictly to Ms. Schiavo in order to quiet objections over establishing a precedent.
The legislative impasse led to friction between the chambers and resulted in the House and Senate trying other legal maneuvers to prevent the feeding tube from being removed. When those failed, lawmakers on Saturday negotiated the final bill confined to Ms. Schiavo, though it recommends that Congress consider broader legislation.
While House Democrats initially allowed the broader measure to pass, the public attention the case has drawn, combined with some of the Republican maneuvering, helped provoke the objections on Sunday. Democratic critics called the intercession a violation of the separation of powers and said it was unseemly and infused with politics. The opposition was from individual Democrats and not an official position taken by the party leadership.
"Everyone can understand and feels compassion and perhaps some empathy with the parents of Ms. Schiavo," said Representative James P. Moran, Democrat of Virginia. "But they have to ask themselves, in this situation, would they want this to be so nationally publicized, to have politicians get into the most intimate anguishing details of a family's situation? In many ways they become political pawns to a larger political issue."
Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, another Florida Democrat who joined the opposition, said her own family had faced the same decision five weeks ago, when her husband's relatives decided to remove a feeding tube from his aunt. "No one felt it essential that I file legislation to stop it," Ms. Wasserman-Schultz said. "This type of end-of-life, gut-wrenching decision happens every day."
But Republicans asserted that Ms. Schiavo's case was unique in that she was not getting any life-sustaining treatment beyond the feeding tube and that on video they had seen she did not appear to be in the physical state normally associated with decisions to end medical assistance. "Remember, Terri is alive, Terri is not in a coma," Dr. Frist said.