Congress quietly moves on

On Easter recess, lawmakers respond with prepared statements of prayer.

Published March 31, 2005

WASHINGTON - For all the rhetoric about life and the end of life, for all the frantic maneuvering and political gambling that marked both sides of Congress' extraordinary attempt to keep feeding Terri Schiavo, her death Thursday was met here with extraordinary quiet in an empty Capitol.

To be sure, there was no shortage of canned statements, and some aspects of the case are likely to reverberate well after lawmakers return next week: The law Congress passed seeking a federal review of Schiavo's case proved the political power of the Christian right. The refusal of the federal courts to do so outraged conservatives, and the Republican House leader is warning retribution.

It has spawned calls for a law providing federal oversight in similar cases. But on Capitol Hill, Schiavo's cause was always driven by a small, powerful group of conservative Republicans, especially House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Sen. Rick Santorum and Sen. Sam Brownback.

Within days of intervening, many rank-and-file lawmakers began to suffer a case of buyer's regret, as polls showed the public believed Congress had overreached into a personal or Florida matter.

"I think the people who brought this issue up, I want to believe they had good intentions, and they kind of got caught up in the emotions of the moment," said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Crystal River, one of five Republicans in the House who voted against the Schiavo bill.

But, she added, "I do think that if Terri had lived until next week, some of the leaders would have pushed some legislation through to try to reconnect the feeding tube."

Schiavo's death spared them that, just as the continuing Easter recess spared them from the cauldron of the Capitol, where competing politics often feed on one another to the point of frenzy. Many appeared anxious to move on, with next week's schedule packed with bankruptcy reform, supplemental appropriations and a hearing on the Patriot Act.

Protesters in downtown Washington on Thursday weren't there for Terri Schiavo; their signs said, "Fix Social Security, Don't Privatize It."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican from Illinois: "We should take solace in knowing that Terri's suffering is finally over, and she is now in a better place."

Frist: "May God bless her memory."

Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who introduced the bill in the Senate: "My sincere hope is that Terri has finally found peace."

President Bush read a short statement urging Americans "to work to build a culture of life." Then he launched, without pause, into the other news of the day, a scathing report on intelligence failures leading to the invasion of Iraq.

There were exceptions. Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, said, "Terri's will to live should serve as an inspiration and impetus for action" to require federal review of such cases. Santorum offered a similar call to action.

DeLay, in particular, maintained the invective that had surrounded much of the debate about Schiavo's case, saying that "this loss happened because our legal system did not protect the people who need protection most, and that will change."

"The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior," he said, "but not today."

-- Washington Bureau Chief Bill Adair contributed to this report.