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Congress set to pass measure to keep brain-damaged woman alive

WASHINGTON—President Bush stood ready at the White House, lawyers stood ready at a Florida courthouse, and nurses were at Terri Schiavo's bedside as Congress moved to the brink of approving a bill that could prolong the brain-damaged woman's life.

At press time, though much remained uncertain, it seemed quite possible that Schiavo could be reconnected to life support overnight or by noon Monday as a case that has galvanized national and worldwide attention opens another new chapter.

"We hope to get you some water," family attorney David Gibbs said he told Schiavo. "We hope to get you some dinner later on."

The Senate approved the measure on an unchallenged voice vote during a rare, Palm Sunday session that came amid charges of cynical political maneuvering. Just three members were on the floor and the bill's prime sponsor, Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, served as presiding officer.

On the other side of the Capitol, House Republicans—unable to muster sufficient support—temporarily postponed action on the bill until 12:01 a.m. Monday.

Passage seemed so likely that Bush rushed back to Washington and, aides said, was poised to immediately sign the measure.

"A human life is in their hands," Bob Schindler, Schiavo's father, said of lawmakers. "I don't know why they'd object to saving a human life."

Now 41, Schiavo has relied on a tube for food and water since 1990. Doctors say she is in a permanent vegetative state, though the Schindlers and their supporters strenuously dispute that.

The feeding tube was removed Friday after her parents lost the latest in a long series of initiatives in state court.

The extraordinary congressional measure would allow her parents to file suit in federal court, according to the bill's sponsors, asking a judge there to conduct a new review of the evidence, without regard to Florida law or past state rulings.

Supporters maintain that a federal judge almost certainly would order the restoration of life support as the case embarks on a new legal journey.

In Pinellas Park, near Clearwater, Schiavo's parents pleaded with Congress to complete the job, had lawyers poised to file a new lawsuit in Tampa's federal court, and told their daughter's hospice to be ready to have her hospitalized so the feeding tube could be reconnected.

"With all of this motion that's going on, the goods have still not been delivered," said Randall Terry, a family spokesman best known for his role in Operation Rescue in the late 1990s. "The bottom line is, she's still in there starving to death."

Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, who wants to remove life support, saying that was her wish, expressed fresh anger over the legislative and political whirlwind now swirling around the case.

"I'm outraged and I think that every American in this country should also be outraged that this government is trampling all over a personal family matter that has been adjudicated in the courts for seven years," he told CNN.

The parents acknowledged, meanwhile, that the proposed federal law, which is constitutionally questionable, could represent just a stop-gap solution.

In response, supporters plan to protest Monday in front of the Florida governor's office in Tallahassee, and Schiavo's mother and sister plan to lobby the state Senate in Tallahassee on Tuesday.

Though a previous state law on her behalf was struck down by state courts, they want a new bill that would permanently restore nutrition to Schiavo and remove her husband as her legal guardian.

"The family in this case is being denied any chance at helping my sister," said her brother, Bobby Schindler, 40, a Tampa science teacher. "We simply want to give Terri the chance she deserves. We simply want to bring her home."

Under the House of Representatives' arcane rules, approval could have come Sunday only by unanimous voice vote of those present, and several Democrats had vowed to block that.

Instead, Republicans had to assemble a quorum of at least 218 members. Then, they had to win a two-thirds majority of the votes. Neither was an easy task, as many members already had scattered on Easter vacation.

"Phone calls started to go out as early as two days ago to alert members that on Sunday and Monday, they might be called to a vote." said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.

Meanwhile, Bush hustled back to Washington from his ranch in Texas, specifically to sign the bill.

"Hours do matter at this point," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said aboard Air Force One.

Gibbs, the attorney for Schiavo's parents, said he would have a lawsuit at the courthouse as soon as the law is signed—night or day. He said he discussed the case with the federal clerk's office in Tampa and he believes everyone there understood the life-and-death urgency.

Judges already were on alert, he said.

"The worst possible scenario would be for the president and Congress to pass this and for Terri to pass away in the night before the court opens," Gibbs said.

Earlier Sunday, in Pinellas Park, an attorney for the Schindler family said a letter was faxed to the Hospice House Woodside, asking doctors there to make all necessary preparations for restoring food and water to Schiavo.

Bob Schindler said he and his wife visited his daughter Sunday morning and she seemed to be doing well. He also thanked about 50 supporters who spent the day outside the hospice. Some of them held signs shaped like spoons that read, "Please feed Terri."

At one point, her mother, Mary Schindler, emerged from the hospice and pleaded with Congress to act immediately.

"We have heard that some congressmen are opposing a bill," she said, standing just a few yards from her daughter's room. "Please, congressmen, don't use this bill for your personal agenda."

But those Democrats opposed to the bill said it was the other side—the Republicans—who were exploiting the issue for their own political benefit.

The Washington Post first published a memo it said had been circulated to GOP senators.

"This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important," the memo reportedly said.

It appeared to target Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida's top Democrat, saying, "This is a great political issue because Senator Nelson of Florida has already refused to become a co-sponsor and this is a tough issue for Democrats."

Democrats said the memo revealed their opponents' real motivation.

"We're making a medical decision about which we know nothing," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. "We should not be making decisions because we're trying to please someone politically."

He acknowledged that many members possessed genuine convictions about the matter.

"But the fact you can't sort it out is further argument for why we ought to just stay the hell out," he said.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., called the bill "inappropriate and outrageous."

"If we were to act we would be thumbing our nose at the final wish of a dying woman," she said.

Congressional Republicans sought to distance themselves from the memo and denied any political motivation.

"There's no politics here," said Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican. "I've been working on the culture of life for 32 years, and whether the public is for or against it, it's all about protecting the weak and defenseless."

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(Clark, Bolstad and Merzer report for The Miami Herald. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Phil Long of The Miami Herald contributed to this report.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SCHIAVO

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