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GOP leaders, Christian groups pushed Schiavo case to the fore of busy Congress

WASHINGTON—The extraordinary intervention by Congress in the Terri Schiavo case this week was a response to the political clout of conservative Christian groups and the personal involvement of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Even as Congress struggled with the federal budget, Medicaid and other national issues, Republican leaders spent long hours, well into early morning Friday, scrambling for ways to block the court-ordered removal of the feeding tube from Schiavo, 41, who has been in a vegetative state for 15 years.

They passed bills, issued subpoenas, interrupted a debate on the annual budget, scheduled hearings and held news conferences, all designed to prevent what DeLay called "an act of barbarism."

"I've never seen anything like this in Congress over an individual case," said Jayd Henricks, a lobbyist for the Family Research Council, one of the key groups seeking to keep Schiavo alive by overriding Florida court orders.

The Capitol Hill action began Thursday afternoon when the Senate passed a narrow, carefully worded bill to give Schiavo's parents standing in federal court and a chance to keep her alive. The parents had lost state court battles to Schiavo's husband, Michael, who wanted the tube disconnected.

"It was unprecedented to have a budget debate stopped for a personal-relief bill like this," said Kerry Feehery, a spokesperson for Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla.

But senators balked at a bill that the House quickly passed that would give new rights in federal court to incapacitated patients, and that angered DeLay and other House GOP leaders.

Most House members had left Capitol Hill before the differences between the House and Senate bills could be reconciled.

Top GOP leaders scrambled "quickly and creatively" to find a way to block the removal of the tube from Schiavo without legislation, Henricks said.

Martinez conferred frequently with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who updated him on the status of bills in the state legislature designed to prevent the removal of the feeding tube.

Bush kept pushing Florida's new senator to press for some sort of federal resolution, Martinez said.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan's statement late Thursday that the president "stands on the side of defending life" signaled Bush's support for legislation, Martinez said.

DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert were "extremely anguished" that time was running out before the court-ordered removal Friday of Schiavo's feeding tube, said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican.

DeLay and Hastert decided that the House Government Reform Committee, although drained by 11 hours of hearings on the issue of steroids in baseball, should launch an inquiry into the case and issue subpoenas to doctors and hospice administrators to stop them from disconnecting Schiavo's tube.

"This inquiry should give hope to Terri, her parents and friends and the million of people praying for her," Hastert said late Thursday. "This fight is not over."

Committee members said they weren't aware of the subpoenas until they were notified Friday morning.

"This all happened so fast, even the committee staff did not know," said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Fla., a committee member. "This has just been thrown at the entire committee and Congress."

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Henry Waxman of California, declared the subpoenas "a flagrant abuse of power."

"Congress is turning the Schiavo family's personal tragedy into a national political farce," Waxman said.

House GOP leaders also said they wanted to hold a hearing at Schiavo's Pinellas Park, Fla., hospice on March 25, which the subpoena called for.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Frist and Martinez got a novel idea from a staff lawyer, according to a participant in one of the meetings.

The senators huddled around midnight and Enzi, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, agreed to send an invitation to Schiavo and her husband to appear at a March 28 hearing in Washington.

The Senate had no intention of bringing Schiavo to Washington, Frist said, but the letter was designed to give her, as a prospective witness, federal protection and threaten criminal penalties against anyone changing her condition.

Such a maneuver had been used with Mafia witnesses in the 1950s and 1960s, one staffer said.

By late Friday, after the feeding tube was removed, it was unclear whether any of the last-ditch actions would change Schiavo's condition.

But a wide array of well-organized conservative groups that had pressured Congress said they would keep working on legislation.

The National Right to Life Committee had kept up an "action alert" all week, encouraging e-mails and phone calls to members of Congress. Henricks, of the Family Research Council, said congressional offices were getting "hundreds" of calls.

"You hope members act out of purpose, but they are also feeling a lot of pressure—people are energized by this," Henricks said.


(Knight Ridder correspondents James Kuhnhenn, William Douglas, Oscar Corral and Nancy San Martin contributed to this report.)


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

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