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Political heft behind bill: DeLay

The House majority leader has made Terri Schiavo's case his own. "He's the catalyst for this Congress," a colleague says.

By WES ALLISON
Published March 21, 2005


WASHINGTON - Victory was only hours away, but the man known on Capitol Hill as The Hammer was still banging away at the opposition, decrying the moral bankruptcy of the "estranged" husband, the hard-hearted Florida judge, the handful of Democrats who would stand in the way.

He couldn't have slept much, considering the pace of negotiations on behalf of Terri Schiavo over the weekend. But on Sunday evening House Majority Leader Tom DeLay looked as coiffed as ever, in his shiny black suit with a black striped tie, his jet black hair just tinged with gray, parted and immovable, despite the man's constant motion.

"Time is not on Terri Schiavo's side," DeLay said, his voice rising. "The few remaining objecting House Democrats have so far cost Ms. Schiavo two meals already."

He followed with a torrent of invective against her "estranged" husband, Michael Schiavo, now living with another woman, a man with whom he had been trading insults since Thursday.

"No care for 15 years. No therapy. No nothing," DeLay said, his voice awash in scorn. "What kind of man is that?"

With the Senate having passed a bill allowing federal review of Schiavo's case at dusk on Sunday and the House expected to act in the wee hours today, the public face of the case in Washington has been that of DeLay, the hard-charging Republican leader and pest control executive from Sugar Land, Texas, who seemed to have made Schiavo his personal cause.

Lawmakers say DeLay, 57, was also key to brokering a deal between the Senate and Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr., the famously stubborn chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which holds jurisdiction for the bill.

Without Sensenbrenner's okay, DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert could not have moved the bill so quickly to the floor.

"He's the catalyst for this Congress, for the House and for the Senate," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who has been close to the negotiations. "When Tom DeLay was moved to step in, this Congress mobilized."

But analysts and critics say the Schiavo case has provided the perfect chance for DeLay, who has been facing questions about his ethical conduct, to work on his image and divert attention from more troublesome matters. It's also an opportunity to woo social conservatives who will be key to ensuring the Republicans maintain their hold on Congress in next year's elections.

"He's the best hardball player we've seen in the House since (Speaker) Newt Gingrich in his heyday," said Allan J. Lichtman, a history professor at American University who studies congressional politics. "This gives DeLay a chance to put a soft face on his otherwise grim image."

Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Palm Bay, introduced the bill to require federal review of Schiavo's case the week before last. But it made little progress in the House or the Senate until last week, when DeLay became involved.

DeLay said he had kept tabs on Schiavo's case since it made national news five years ago, but first took action Monday by asking Sensenbrenner to start working on Weldon's bill. Asked why now, DeLay said, "They were about to kill her."

Like other Republican lawmakers championing Schiavo's bill, DeLay often suggests she is alert and potentially treatable.

"She talks and she laughs and she expresses likes and discomforts," he said Sunday evening. "It won't take a miracle to help Terri Schiavo. It will only take the medical care and therapy that patients require."

After years of review, a Florida circuit court judge found that Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state, and any emotions she appears to express are simply reflexive. Based largely on the testimony of her husband and friends, a judge ruled she would not want to be kept alive, and ordered her feeding tube removed Friday.

Her parents have fought the order, and under Weldon's bill a federal judge could review any similar case. The House passed a version of it late Wednesday night, but it was too broad for Senate Democrats.

The Senate then passed a narrow version Thursday that would affect only Schiavo. Sensenbrenner refused to accept it.

King said DeLay and Sensenbrenner then began meeting with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., to find a compromise.

Weldon, a physician, said DeLay called him about the case every day this week, and on Saturday asked him if Schiavo would recover from having the tube removed if Congress took a couple more days.

The final bill - which DeLay labeled the Palm Sunday Compromise - was essentially the Senate's version, and DeLay acknowledged he had "given in." It was a rare concession for The Hammer.

"If somebody thinks (DeLay) is less than a compassionate person, let me tell you - this is all about compassion, this is all about the Constitution, this is all about preserving the rights of Terri Schiavo," King said.

The fact that DeLay's friends feel the need to validate his compassion - and King was not alone - is testament to DeLay's reputation on the Hill, where he is both respected and feared by the Republican members who elected him their leader.

He is cherished for his dedication, political skill and fundraising prowess; his political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority, raised $3.7-million in the last election cycle and gave nearly $1-million to Republican congressional candidates.

But he's also known to trample those who cross him. Last year, for example, the Republican leadership replaced the Republican chairman of the House ethics committee after it chastised DeLay three times for official conduct. The leadership then added two Republicans who had contributed to DeLay's legal fund.

While the committee didn't cite specific violations, it suggested DeLay's behavior reflected poorly on the House, and it cautioned him to temper his behavior.

Meanwhile, three associates of DeLay's have been indicted in Texas as part of an ongoing probe into political fundraising. DeLays says he has done nothing wrong.

Shawn Parry-Giles, director of the Center for Political Communication and Civic Leadership at the University of Maryland, said it's not surprising that DeLay has taken the lead on the Schiavo bill. She said it provides a distraction from his ethical inquiries, as well the difficulties he and Frist have had in winning support for President Bush's Social Security plan.

DeLay is a social conservative who opposes abortion and gets high marks from right-to-life activists, who have adopted Schiavo as a favorite cause.

Lichtman said getting them to the polls during next year's midterm elections, which traditionally suffer from low turnout, will be essential to maintaining the Republican Party's 29-vote margin in the House.

Lichtman said he also believes DeLay's prominence on the Schiavo bill was an attempt by the Republican Party to scrub his image.

Although Frist has worked just as furiously to secure passage in the Senate, where the Democratic opposition was tougher, he has been content to issue terse written statements. DeLay, meanwhile, has held nationally televised news conferences each day since Thursday.

DeLay has regularly attacked Michael Schiavo and Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer, the judge who ordered the feeding tube removed, saying Friday that "Schiavo's life is not slipping away - it is being violently wrenched from her body in an act of medical terrorism."

DeLay attacked Democratic senators opposing the bill, say they "have put Mrs. Schiavo's life at risk to prove a point, an unprecedented profile in cowardice."

Santorum and others asked him to tone it down, aides said, for fear he would jeopardize negotiations.

DeLay indeed toned it down, at least when talking about Democratic senators, but he didn't disappear. Just after the Senate's passage Sunday evening, with hundreds of House members rushing to town to debate the bill, DeLay held another press conference, blasting the Democrats who still opposed it, while praising those who agreed to help.

"The Republican Party needs Tom DeLay," Lichtman said. "He's the man with total dedication to achieve power for the Republican Party no matter what it takes, and that's hard to replace. Not too many people have that dual combination of strategic insight and iron will."

--Times staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.