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Bush's powers fall short of beliefs

Despite increasing pressure to intervene, the governor says he will not exceed his authority.

Published March 25, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - After six years of steadily expanding his power, Gov. Jeb Bush is facing the reality that the case of Terri Schiavo is beyond his control.

As Schiavo entered her seventh consecutive day without food and water Thursday, Bush was a target of mounting pressure to intervene and save her.

Despite getting "a lot of advice" on TV and the Internet about how he should take custody of Schiavo, Bush said he would not exceed his authority.

"There are a lot of things that go on in society that trouble me, and this is certainly one of them. To have somebody starve to death troubles me greatly," a weary-looking Bush told reporters in his Capitol office. "We have done everything that we can, and we will continue to do so, within the powers that I have."

Since 1999, Bush has expanded the governor's power to pick judges, made the FCAT test the cornerstone of education and eliminated affirmative action by executive order.

By contrast, the Schiavo case is the most visible example of Bush's inability to force change.

Repeatedly rebuffed by judges in his efforts to reattach Schiavo's feeding tube, Bush finds himself under attack from people who in most cases would be political allies.

"I believe Gov. Bush does not want her to die on his watch," said Randall Terry of Operation Rescue, surrounded by cameras outside the Pinellas Park hospice where Schiavo is a patient.

Outside the state Capitol, a demonstrator held up a sign reading: "Jeb Bush, are you a man or a mouse?"

Bush acknowledges he has limits.

"I can't go beyond what my powers are, and I'm not going to do it," Bush said.

The criticism of Bush is among the most pointed since the raucous and partisan atmosphere after the 2000 presidential election, when the governor could not avoid the perception of helping his brother prevail in the Florida recount.

"He's getting squeezed," said state Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, who voted against a Senate bill to reconnect the tube. "The far right has taken that as their mantra: He has the power. But we don't live in a sovereignty run by a king."

Bush may have brought criticism on himself by raising hopes among some fervent supporters of reconnecting Schiavo's feeding tube.

At a hastily called news conference on Wednesday, the governor and Lucy Hadi, secretary of the Department of Children and Families, said they were reviewing their options under a law that allows the state to move a vulnerable adult to state custody.

As several national cable channels carried the session live, Bush and his aides seemed blindsided by a basic question: Did Bush believe he had the authority to take custody of Schiavo?

"We want to make sure that we're carefully saying exactly what the authority is," Bush said.

His legal counsel, Raquel Rodriguez, quickly added that the state "could take protective custody of Mrs. Schiavo, and I'll leave it at that."

When Bush was asked whether the state planned to do that, he answered: "That won't be my decision."

It didn't happen. Michael Schiavo's lawyer quickly secured a temporary court order that prevented any such action, and Circuit Judge George Greer made the injunction permanent on Thursday.

Bush is at the center of an emotional moral and political storm surrounding Schiavo.

But on one point his supporters and critics agree: Bush's actions are not motivated by polls or political ambition, but by personal conviction.

"I believe that he is convinced that she is not in a permanent vegetative state and is working on an effort to allow her some other treatment," said Michael McCarron, executive director of the Florida Catholic Conference. "He's going to continue to pursue this to the last opportunity."

Tom Slade, former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said Bush is indifferent to the political ramifications.

"I really don't think he cares," Slade said. "I think he's motivated by his very honest feelings on the subject, and I don't think he would give two hoots in hell what people's reaction might be to his activity. I think he's doing what he thinks is right."

Some Schiavo supporters were headed to the governor's mansion Thursday for a prayer vigil. John Stemberger of Florida Family Action said he disagreed with calls from some social conservatives to protest Bush's actions.

"He's internally motivated by principle on this issue," Stemberger said.

Sitting in his Capitol office Thursday afternoon, his laptop computer close by, Bush again placed his hopes in U.S. District Judge James Whittemore, who two days earlier refused to order doctors to connect Schiavo's feeding tube.

He repeated his argument that Schiavo deserves the same legal latitude afforded death-row inmates, whose cases remain under review for many years after they are sent to prison.

"I just question, why not Terri Schiavo? Why is it so cut and dried? Why is the focus becoming so narrow?" Bush said. "I don't have an answer to it."

Times staff writers Tom Zucco, Michael Sandler and Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

[Last modified March 25, 2005, 01:01:16]

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