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Social conservatives flex political muscle in Schiavo case

WASHINGTON—The extraordinary response by the federal government to try to save the life of Terri Schiavo is a testament to the political passion and influence of social conservatives.

Once the feeding tube was removed from Schiavo on Friday, outraged conservatives rose up to demand action from a government they helped put in power.

The response was immediate. In a matter of hours, Republicans brushed aside questions about intruding in traditionally local affairs, settled a squabble between the House and Senate, and summoned members back to Washington from their Easter recess for a remarkable Palm Sunday session to begin enacting legislation unheard of a week before.

President Bush raced back from his Texas ranch to be ready to sign it.

Keith Appell, a veteran political strategist, worked with social conservative groups on the Schiavo case.

"They've played a major role," he said. "There's been an enormous amount of pressure brought to bear on conservative members of Congress to get involved."

Social conservatives—represented by such groups as Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition—are a major part of the coalition that has twice elected George Bush president and kept Republicans in control of Congress. Yet until now they have not had as much influence in the Republican-controlled government as they would like.

They could not get approval of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. And they have not been able to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortions.

Still, Bush and many Republican members of Congress are eager to please them. Primarily, they tend to agree with social conservatives on cultural and moral issues. Politically, they are also mindful that Christian and social conservatives are an organized voting bloc.

Conservative Peggy Noonan warned Republicans controlling the federal government they risked a significant backlash if they failed to take action to save Schiavo.

"The Republican Party controls the Senate, the House and the White House. The Republicans are in charge. They have the power. If they can't save this woman's life, they will face a reckoning from a sizable portion of their own base. And they will of course deserve it," she wrote in the Wall Street Journal Friday.

At the same time, an unsigned memo circulated among Senate Republicans noted the potential political fallout from the Schiavo case.

"This is an important moral issue and the pro life base will be excited," said the memo, leaked to several news organizations.

The memo said the case could be particularly effective in Florida, where Schiavo lives and where the state's Democratic senator is up for re-election next year.

"This is a great political issue because Sen. Nelson of Florida has already refused to become a co-sponsor and this is a tough issue for Democrats," the memo said.

As Schiavo's feeding tube was disconnected Friday, some tried to turn the blame on liberals. Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said, "the problem we face in the country here, folks, is that the left and the courts have created a culture of death."

The Christian Coalition blamed Democrats when Republicans could not agree on legislation Friday. The group said "the party of death" blocked a quick vote in the Senate.

Others worked to keep the pressure on the Republicans in charge. Groups like the Concerned Women for America and Focus on the Family urged members to flood Congress with calls and e-mail.

Radio talk show host Sean Hannity got House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., to explain why he couldn't reach agreement with Senate Republicans and then pressured Sensenbrenner to negotiate on the air with Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

By Sunday, there were disputes over the wisdom of planned legislation.

"The most disturbing feature about the Terri Schiavo case is the intrusion of political forces into the process of family decision-making at the most vulnerable of times in the life of a family and person," said Richard Payne, director of the Institute on Care at the End of Life at Duke University Divinity School in North Carolina.

Appell, the strategist, noted that Congress decided to take action only grudgingly.

"Being conservative, there is a natural reluctance to get involved in something that is local," he said. "But they stayed out of this as long they could."

Also the partisan effects were not at all clear. Many Democrats were involved in the negotiations, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota.

But there was no doubt that social conservatives had made themselves heard in Washington.

"You've had a rare moment where the traditional Christian conservatives and the social conservatives have come together with people representing the disabled community," Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said on the "Fox News Sunday" program. "Those two forces have coalesced to do something good."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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