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House scurries on Schiavo bill

IN CAPITAL: The bill for Terri Schiavo pulls the president from Texas.

Published March 21, 2005

IN FLORIDA: Federal judges in Tampa await a call from Washington.

WASHINGTON - The people who want to keep Terri Schiavo alive marshaled the powers of all three branches of the federal government Sunday in an extraordinary last-minute effort to resume feeding her.

The U.S. Senate on Sunday afternoon passed a bill legislators say would all but force a federal judge to order the brain-damaged woman's feeding tube reinserted. After members rushed back to Washington from their Easter recess, the House was poised to do the same early today in an emergency vote.

Clerks were standing at the Capitol ready to take it to President Bush, who cut short his vacation at his Texas ranch and returned to the White House. Bush ordered staff to awaken him so he could sign the bill early today.

"Hours do matter at this point," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

In Tampa, federal judges were on call at home in the wee hours of the morning, attorneys in the case said. The judges agreed to review the new law and issue, via e-mail, an order that Republicans hoped would re-insert the tube, said David Gibbs III, attorney for Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler.

"We in the Senate recognize that it is extraordinary that we act," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. "But these are extraordinary circumstances that center on the most fundamental of human values - the sanctity of human life."

The law the House debated late Sunday, called "An act for the relief of the parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo," would take the case to federal court in Tampa for a full review of the facts and a determination of whether Schiavo's rights were violated.

Members spoke passionately about Schiavo, but some mispronounced her name and her parents' name.

"No right is more sacred than the right to life," said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, who introduced the bill. "In our deeds and in our actions, we must build a culture of life. Every life has a purpose and no life is without meaning."

"This is wrong," countered Rep. David Wu, D-Oregon. "The Republican leadership has transformed a tragedy for this family into a tragedy for this entire nation."

An attorney for Michael Schiavo, who says his 41-year-old wife would not want to live hooked to a feeding tube, acknowledged the judge could order the tube reinserted if he or she wants time to consider arguments or to have attorneys file briefs.

"He could easily order her to the hospital or order reasonable steps to have the tube successfully reinserted," said Hamden Baskin III, an attorney for Michael Schiavo. "There's no question a federal judge can do that."

Baskin said it's more likely the judge would first want to hear testimony about Terri Schiavo, whose feeding tube has been removed twice before, only to be reinserted by court order.

"I think a judge would want some medical testimony, some type of evidentiary hearing before considering to reinsert the feeding tube," Baskin said. "I think a judge is going to want to hear about the logistics of re-insertion and hear it from doctors. That's the more likely scenario."

Baskin said Michael Schiavo's attorneys are poised to immediately argue to a federal judge that the new law is unconstitutional.

If a federal judge orders the tube re-inserted, they are prepared to immediately ask the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal in Atlanta for a stay preventing that.

If the judge doesn't order the tube reinserted, Baskin said he expects the Schindlers' attorneys to appeal to the 11th Circuit, too.

Republican leaders have been fashioning the new law since Friday, when Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer refused to let congressional subpoenas interfere with his order that Schiavo's feeding tube be removed. Today will be Schiavo's third full day without food or water.

"The president has adjusted his schedule, the Congress has adjusted its schedule, and we respectfully ask the court to adjust its schedule," Gibbs said. "We feel every moment is urgent. We are considering every second as precious in terms of saving Terri."

Terri Schiavo has been in what the courts have ruled is a persistent vegetative state, her brain virtually destroyed after she suffered a cardiac arrest in 1990.

Her parents contend she responds to them and would want to live.

The deal between the Senate and House was brokered behind closed doors, around the clock over the weekend.

Finding a compromise had been difficult because of concerns the law might undermine existing state laws on the right to die, or may create a precedent. But the final bill deals only with Schiavo.

The Senate and House met under extraordinary circumstances on a Sunday - a day not even recognized on legislative calendars. Tourists and the public were allowed into the Capitol to watch the proceedings.

The Senate and House both passed their own bills last week, but failed to agree on the same version.

Members of Congress felt enormous pressure to come up with an agreement after conservative groups and individuals bombarded their offices with e-mails and calls to keep Schiavo alive.

After days of behind-the-scenes negotiating, it took just three senators to pass the bill on a voice-vote Sunday afternoon in a 10-minute session attended by more staffers and tourists than elected officials.

With only about 15 Republican members on the floor, the House met for four minutes just after 1 p.m. Sunday but failed to pass the bill.

About eight Democrats huddled on the floor ready to object to the House taking up the bill, but they were not given a chance.

The House can take up a vote only if no single member objects. But the rules are different Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when the presiding officer can suspend those rules and allow a bill to proceed. House rules require a bill taken up in this expedited way receive a two-thirds majority of those present to pass.

Generally, only noncontroversial bills, such as commending a winning team or naming a new post office are taken up in the same manner as the Schiavo bill was.

Republican leaders went into recess, and announced they would vote on a bill shortly after midnight. They need a quorum of 218 members for a roll call vote.

House leaders were certain they have enough votes, but scrambled Sunday to make sure enough members returned for quorum.

Legislators who left Washington on Friday for the two-week Easter recess had to make abrupt changes in plans. Members, many back in their districts or on trips across the globe, were given 17-hour notice for the midnight vote.

The House has 232 Republicans, 202 Democrats and one independent.

Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said his office was informing members of the vote, but said the party was not counting votes and was telling members to vote their conscience on the issue.

Three Floridians, including Tampa's Jim Davis, flew back to Washington Sunday morning.

"If we do not draw the line in the sand today, there is no limit to what democratic principles this Congress will ignore or what liberties they may trample on next," Davis, who is running for governor, said during the debate about 10 p.m. Sunday.

Earlier in the day, Democrats argued that Congress should not intrude on personal family decisions and predicted if the bill passes it will create a precedent in other family disputes over medical care.

"Congress, if we act, would be thumbing our nose at what was the final wish of one dying woman," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston.

"It is not the place of Congress at the 11th hour in the most abusive fashion to undermine the Florida court systems," said Rep. Robert Wexler of Boca Raton.

Republicans House members disagreed, saying the bill gives Schiavo the right to a federal judicial review just like death row inmates whose appeals have been exhausted in state courts.

"This law just gives her the right to go to another court," said Rep. Donald Manzullo, R-Ill.

The Senate also needed unanimous consent to take up the bill Sunday. But Frist and Minority Leader Harry Reid worked out a compromise behind the scenes beforehand so even the Democrats opposed to the bill would not return to fight it.

When the bill passed by a voice-vote, only Frist, Sen. Mel Martinez and Sen. John Warner were present.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said the federal district court in Tampa is open 24 hours a day and is standing by to accept a petition asking a judge to order Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted while he or she reviews the case.

"The legal issues, I grant, are complicated, but the moral issues are not," DeLay said. "What will it hurt for a federal judge to look at all the evidence and apply it to 15 years of medical advances?"

All six federal judges in Tampa agreed to be on call Sunday night to rule on an order to re-insert Schiavo's feeding tube, Gibbs said.

A courtroom clerk will open the courthouse after midnight to take the new case, he said.

Then, the case could get randomly assigned by computer to one of the six judges.

That judge, waiting at home, will then rule on the case and send an order by e-mail to the lawyers, Gibbs said.

As fast as that could happen, Schiavo could get even quicker relief from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

At 11 p.m. Saturday, a clerk with the appeals court asked Gibbs to file a brief about what might happen if Congress passes a new law for Schiavo Sunday.

The appeals court had not ruled on a last-ditch attempt to get federal courts to intervene on the case. Once the law is passed and signed by Bush, the appeals court could then intervene.

In that event, Gibbs said, the case would be heard by U.S. District Court James Moody Jr., a former Hillsborough circuit judge appointed to the federal bench in 2000 by President Clinton who turned down Gibbs' motion on Friday.

Michael Schiavo's family members were outraged by the congressional activity.

"Tom DeLay, he is an absolute buffoon," said Brian Schiavo, Michael Schiavo's brother. "I can't believe that the federal government is doing this. Anybody who thinks that she talks and responds, they need to have their heads examined. Tom Delay and all these others need to have their heads examined."

Even some of the Schindlers' supporters said the federal law could keep Schiavo alive only temporarily. A federal judge could agree with all the previous state judges' decisions and order the tube removed again.

"It could just be a stop-gap measure," said Randall Terry, the national right-to-life activist who is guiding the Schindler's political fight.

Terry knows that from experience: He was protesting outside Nancy Cruzan's hospital in 1990 after a state judge ordered her feeding tube removed. That judge's order came after the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the Cruzan case and left her fate in the hands of the state court.

In what is considered a landmark end-of-life case, Cruzan died just days after her tube was removed. Laws allowing guardians to remove loved ones from feeding tubes became more common.

The Schiavo case has presented the most vigorous challenge to those laws in 15 years.

Terry said a state law was the best hope to keep Schiavo alive, which is why he and at least two dozen other protesters hit the road for Tallahassee Sunday.

The Christian conservatives drove off in caravans to take on an unlikely foe: A group of Republican state senators.

Last week, nine Republicans opposed an amendment to change Florida's right-to-die law, which forced Schiavo's supporters to go to Washington for help.

Terry vowed Sunday to get the Republicans to change turn sides to pass a bill that would permanently save Schiavo.

As he rallied supporters to travel with him to Tallahassee, Terry reminded Republicans who had helped bring them to power.

"Listen: You rode into office on the rhetoric of family values. It's time to turn your rhetoric into results," Terry said.

It was a not-too-subtle reminder of the role Christian conservatives played in the 2004 election. Their fervent support for Republicans helped President Bush carry the Sunshine State and enabled Martinez to beat Democrat Betty Castor in the race for the U.S. Senate.

Terry acknowledged a change in Florida law could have nationwide affects, much as the Cruzan case did 15 years ago.

"What happens in Tallahassee will affect every state in the union," Terry said.

--Times staff writers Candace Rondeaux, Wes Allison and William R. Levesque contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.

[Last modified March 21, 2005, 01:51:06]

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