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House votes to save Schiavo

The Florida House passes a measure that gives Gov. Bush power to issue a "one-time stay.'' Senate takes it up today

ALISA ULFERTS, WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
Published October 21, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Florida lawmakers are in a politically charged race to save a dying Terri Schiavo.

Meeting in emergency session late Monday, the House passed a bill that would force doctors to reinsert a feeding tube into the stomach of the severely brain-damaged woman, who has been without food and water since Wednesday.

The vote was 68-23, with 28 members absent. The Senate will take up the bill today. If the Senate agrees, Gov. Jeb Bush could sign it into law today.

A judge ordered the tube removed last week in what appeared to end a tortuous, five-year legal struggle. But the Legislature wants to give Bush power to override the judge.

The governor stepped in late Monday and added the issue to the agenda of this week's special session on economic development.

Talk radio and Web sites helped to unleash a torrent of emotional response from people around the country. They flooded lawmakers with calls and e-mails.

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, called the session just hours after his U.S. Senate campaign announced that he would appear on the Fox TV show Hannity & Colmes. The campaign e-mail said: "Byrd to announce bill to save Terri Schiavo."

Byrd was in session instead and never appeared on the show.

Byrd called the session soon after Senate President Jim King announced that his chamber would file legislation giving Bush power to override the courts in the Schiavo case.

On the House floor, some lawmakers were given sheets containing scripted statements about what they should say about the case in speeches or interviews. Among the suggested comments: "Someone needs to be a voice for the voiceless like Terri Schiavo."

The House bill gives Bush power to issue a "one-time stay" to prevent the withholding of nutrition and hydration under certain circumstances. The measure was narrowly tailored to the unusual circumstances in the Schiavo case.

The patient must be in a persistent vegetative state; must have had food and water withheld; must not have left a written directive; and must have a family member who challenged the withholding of food and water.

The bill (HB 35-E) is sponsored by Rep. John Stargel, a first-term Lakeland Republican. Copies were not available until the House was called back into session at 8:15 p.m. No House committee debated the bill, it received no legal analysis and some lawmakers never read it.

An emotional Rep. Sandy Murman, R-Tampa, said: "No one should take God's power in their hands. We need to step in here. We need to do this. It's the right thing."

Republicans criticized the judge in the case, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer, and said they had a duty to act.

"I think the judge in this case is absolutely wrong," said Rep. Don Davis, R-Jacksonville.

Democrats said giving the governor power to override a court order is an assault on the separation of powers clause in Florida's Constitution.

"This is a patently unconstitutional bill," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "It would be an awful stain on this chamber."

The attorney for Mrs. Schiavo's husband, who wants to end life support, said the legislation would be unconstitutional.

"It's contrary to the state Constitution to say the governor has the right to force people to have medical treatment they don't want," attorney George Felos said.

Pat Anderson, representing Mrs. Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, said lawmakers have the authority to step in.

"I'm blown away," Anderson said. "Let's just see what they hammer out. . . . People have been angry at the lack of Republican leadership they see in this case. That can't be music to politicians' ears."

Mrs. Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, who has been silent in recent weeks, issued a statement late in the day hinting at his own anguish amid the political and legal maneuvering.

"Some people do not agree with the decision the court made to remove Terri's feeding tube," Schiavo said. "I struggle to accept it myself. But I know in my heart that it is right, and it is what Terri wants."

Lost in all the activity was a hearing in Tampa federal court called after a watchdog group for disabled rights petitioned a judge to resume feeding Mrs. Schiavo.

The Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities asked U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday to force doctors to feed Mrs. Schiavo while the group investigates whether she is being abused or neglected. The group is a state-appointed, federally funded nonprofit agency that monitors the treatment of the disabled in Florida. The judge promised a ruling today.

As their legal options dwindle, Mrs. Schiavo's parents have increasingly called on Bush and lawmakers to save their daughter.

The issue is politically sensitive for both King and Byrd.

King sponsored the state's original Death with Dignity Act, which allowed people to write living wills and have them respected. Schiavo, who collapsed when she was 26, didn't have a living will, but her husband says she told him she would not want to live in a vegetative state.

"I passed it because of the cancerous death of my mother and my father," King told reporters.

Byrd is facing stiff competition in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, in which antiabortion conservatives are an important voting bloc.

A Web site launched last weekend urged people to contact King, who until Monday evening had said he didn't think lawmakers should intervene. King's office got hundreds of e-mails.

A visibly upset King called a news conference to announce that his staff had come up with a plan. King chose as the Senate sponsor one of Byrd's Senate rivals: Sen. Dan Webster of Winter Garden.

"It's been a tough, tough day," King said. "I only hope to God that we've done the right thing."

At a Senate Republican caucus, King let senators know he expected them to vote according to their own conscience. Few senators seemed happy about the turn of events. Some speculated openly about Byrd's motives.

"I'm just about tired of someone across the hallway putting their own personal political agenda for their Senate race, or whatever race it is, ahead of the people of the state of Florida," said Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton.

Amid the flurry of action in Tallahassee, Mrs. Schiavo, 39, remains in stable condition at Woodside Hospice in Pinellas Park, according to the Schindlers.

"We haven't given up hope from the beginning," said Mrs. Schiavo's brother, Bob Schindler Jr. "And we're still praying that God will grant us a miracle."

- Times staff writers Curtis Krueger and Leanora Minai contributed to this report.

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