Monday, March 21, 2005

Congress last night passed legislation aimed at saving the life of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose feeding tube was removed Friday, and President Bush was expected to immediately sign the measure.

“How can we live with ourselves if we don’t give her one more chance,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

The House passed the bill, 203-58, after midnight. Only five Republicans voted against the bill, while Democrats split with 46 in favor and 53 against.

House members on a two-week break were called back to town for the roll call vote, since a handful of House Democrats vociferously opposed the bill and would not allow it a smoother path.

The Senate passed the bill earlier yesterday by voice vote, since Senate Democrats signed off on it. The measure gives Mrs. Schiavo’s parents the right to argue before a federal judge in a fresh trial that their daughter’s rights are being violated by the removal of her feeding tube, ordered by a state court on behalf of the woman’s husband, Michael Schiavo.

Democratic opponents delayed the bill with hours of debate, saying that Congress is trampling Florida courts and that federal lawmakers clearly should not be arguing over an individual’s medical conditions or personal wishes.

Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, said the caption for the House floor debate should be “We’re not doctors. We just play them on C-SPAN.” He said that “ideology is driving this” legislation.

But Mr. Bush came back to Washington last night from his ranch in Texas expressly to sign the measure into law immediately upon the House giving its approval.

“Hours do matter at this point,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said on Air Force One yesterday, adding that “time is important” and Mr. Bush wishes to “err on the side of life” in this case.

“The bill we passed … centers on the sanctity of human life,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican.

While critics berated Congress for stepping into the case, Mr. DeLay argued lawmakers are well within their bounds.

“We as Congress have every right to make sure the constitutional rights of Terri Schiavo are protected,” he said.

During House floor debate, supporters of the bill said the public has been misled about the condition of Mrs. Schiavo, who suffered cardiac arrest and brain damage in 1990 but can breathe on her own and responds to her family.

“Terri has a brain injury, but otherwise she’s healthy,” said Rep. Joe Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican. “We do not let people starve an animal to death. We do not let them starve a prisoner to death.”

“Terri Schiavo is not on life support,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, who was a key negotiator on the legislation. “To starve someone to death … is one of the most cruel and inhumane ways to die.”

Opponents argued Congress is way out of line.

“It is not the place of Congress, at the 11th hour, to intervene in the most abusive fashion to undermine the Florida court system,” said Rep. Robert Wexler, Florida Democrat.

“If we do not draw the line in the sand today, there’s no telling what constitutional principles this Congress will trample next,” said Rep. Jim Davis, another Florida Democrat who opposed the bill.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, Florida Republican, joined the band of Democrats in opposing the bill. She said she “burned up the phone” calling medical experts in Florida, and in the end decided that “to second-guess the Florida Legislature, the Florida courts … is wrong.”

Earlier yesterday, Mrs. Schiavo’s mother, Mary Schindler, pleaded for lawmakers to act. “Please, please, please save my little girl,” she told reporters in Florida.

The House and Senate passed different versions of the bill last week, before agreeing to a compromise Saturday. Their efforts to save Mrs. Schiavo by subpoenaing her to appear before Congress were rebuffed by a Florida court and the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday.

Though the compromise bill doesn’t mandate Mrs. Schiavo’s feeding tube be reinserted, supporters say a federal judge will have to do so in order to keep her alive while the federal review happens.

Mr. Frank called the bill another example of how Mr. Bush and Republican leaders “totally disregard” any limits on their power.

“There is no bedroom safe in America. There is no hospital room safe,” said Rep. David Wu, Oregon Democrat.

But Rep. Donald Manzullo, Illinois Republican, said that it’s absurd to argue Congress cannot respond to problems arising in individual lives. He said lawmakers routinely consider bills arising from individual cases that prompt outrage.

“Everything we do here is based on how the Constitution impacts the lives of people,” he said.

Mr. DeLay said it’s a highly unusual case that deserves one last review, especially since Mr. Schiavo, who now has two children by another woman, has denied Mrs. Schiavo basic therapy and medical tests, and because some doctors say she can improve with rehabilitation.

“We’re responding to a cry that there’s an injustice here,” said Rep. Dave Weldon, Florida Republican and a practicing physician, who led the legislative effort in the House. He said there is notable Democratic support for the bill and only a handful of Democrats, along with a few Republicans, oppose it.

• James G. Lakely contributed to this report from Crawford, Texas.

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