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Republican Nine stick to vow on Schiavo

Published March 20, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - The Republican Nine first came together over fried chicken and salad.

The senators represented all corners of the state and both ends of the GOP spectrum. But they had one thing in common: They did not want to change the state's right-to-die law to keep Terri Schiavo alive.

"I believe that there is a heaven and that's where Terri Schiavo is going to go, and that's a trip that's long overdue," said Sen. Jim King, the Jacksonville Republican who authored the state's death with dignity law after watching his parents suffer drawn-out deaths from cancer.

"Had God not wanted what happened today to happen, He would have intervened," King said Friday after the Senate failed to pass legislation aimed at preventing Schiavo's feeding tube from being removed by a judge's order.

The Senate briefly took up the legislation Friday, but did not vote on it. The Florida House on Thursday passed its own bill, 78-37.

The pressure was intense. The case has drawn international attention, from the Vatican to the White House to Congress, which was working over the weekend to agree on legislation in the case.

The issue was considered such a matter of personal faith, conscience and conviction that the Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses refused to take an official position. On most controversial legislation, each side agrees to vote a certain way, and it is noted and remembered when lawmakers fail to follow the party line. But everyone - from Senate president Tom Lee on down - agreed that political affiliation was second to a higher power on this issue, and each lawmaker was told to vote his or her conscience.

Even so, King managed to keep together the Republican Nine, as they soon became known, through myriad twists and turns.

It began when the group of senators sat down to lunch Wednesday, as it often does, in the Senate Majority Office between committee meetings. They started discussing their reluctance to pass any bill that could change the state's death with dignity law. By coincidence, they were all on the same side.

There was no arm twisting.

Hours before the nine sat down to lunch, Senate Democrats had finished their own breakfast meeting. They had an even less tenable grip on their membership. Although they discussed the legislation, few volunteered how they planned to vote.

"It was so unorganized that when we got to the (Senate) floor, I had no idea we had as many Democrats as we did," said Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua.

The Republican Nine vowed to stick together.

"All I said ... is if any one of you is going to peel off, will you please let the rest of us know," King said.

The atmosphere was vastly different from 2003, when King was Senate president and personally asked Senate Democrats not to fight a hastily passed bill empowering Gov. Jeb Bush to defy a court order and reinsert Schiavo's feeding tube.

Lee blamed the intensity of the 2003 debate on House Speaker Johnnie Byrd's political ambitions. Byrd used the Schiavo case to score political points with Christian conservatives during a crowded Republican primary for the U.S. Senate that Mel Martinez ultimately won.

King said he didn't have to pressure the eight other Republican senators to oppose the measure because they were already firm in their resolve.

Once it became clear that the outcome of an amendment would dictate the fate of the overall bill, King quickly convened a conference of the Republican Nine on the floor of the Senate chamber for one last tally of votes.

Even then, the amendment's defeat surprised King's group.

"The nine Republicans did not know until we sat there right before the vote that we were on the prevailing side," King said.

The nine Republicans joined 12 Democrats to defeat the amendment, effectively killing any chance of passing a bill to trump the court order to remove Schiavo's feeding tube. Only one Senate Democrat, Tallahassee's Al Lawson, voted for the measure. Fort Lauderdale Democrat Mandy Dawson had an excused absence.

The amendment, which would have narrowed the potential number of people affected by the bill, was defeated even though it was the least intrusive proposal and the only one that had any real shot of passing the Senate. But even it was too intrusive for most of the Senate.

Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, was one of the nine Senate Republicans to oppose the amendment. She said her office was bombarded with menacing calls and e-mails, accusing her of being a murderer.

On the Senate floor Friday, Argenziano wept as she talked about the pressure on her and her colleagues.

"Most of the people from my district believe we had no business in this," Argenziano said in an interview later. "They did not want to lose family power. But getting e-mails and calls so nasty and venomous - un-Christianlike - just amazes me. They don't even know what they're talking about."

Argenziano said some calls were vaguely threatening, but she was more upset than frightened.

"It's a machine out there spreading misinformation," she said. "I respect them for what they believe. And I wish they'd respect me for my belief, that you shouldn't keep people from going to heaven."

Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, said he was disappointed that Republican senators didn't pass the amendment, which everyone agreed was at least an improvement of the current bill.

But he's not withdrawing his bill.

"This goes on as long as it goes on. Until Terri Schiavo dies," Webster said.

[Last modified March 20, 2005, 01:06:08]

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