A week after the battle over Terri Schiavo’s life ended in her death, the Republican push in Congress to legislate on end-of-life issues appears to have stalled, at least temporarily.
At the height of the controversy, two congressional committees scheduled hearings and, dramatically, called as a witness the brain-damaged Florida woman whose feeding tube was removed by court order. The first of those hearings was held Wednesday -- without Schiavo, who died March 31, or anyone connected to the case.
Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate health and education committee, found himself behind a near-empty dais with little to offer in the way of legislation. Instead, he took the noncontroversial stance of urging Americans to sign living wills.
“This hearing is about more than Terri Schiavo,” Enzi said. “The national dialogue that began with Terri Schiavo must continue. Families need to discuss these issues long before their loved ones are unable to express their views.”
In the House, there has been even less movement. At the height of Washington’s involvement in the case, the House Committee on Government Reform issued subpoenas to compel Schiavo and her husband, Michael, to appear. But the panel postponed its hearing, perhaps indefinitely.
The apparent lack of direction among Republicans contrasts with their dramatic intervention in the Schiavo controversy less than three weeks ago. GOP leaders reconvened the Senate and the House during the congressional spring recess to pass a bill permitting her parents to appeal to federal courts to order the feeding tube reconnected. President Bush returned early from a trip to his Texas ranch to sign the bill into law March 21.
Debate over the politics of the issue has swirled around Washington since then. Late Wednesday, Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) acknowledged that a controversial memo laying out the political benefits of the Schiavo battle for Republicans had been written by a member of his staff.
The memo described the politics of the Schiavo case as “a tough issue for Democrats” that “is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue.”
Martinez said the staffer who drafted the memo had resigned. Sources identified him as Brian Darling, Martinez’s legal counsel and a former lobbyist.
The memo has become a source of partisan recrimination. Democrats accused Republicans of seeking political gain from a family’s personal tragedy. Republicans accused Democrats of falsifying the memo as part of a disinformation campaign.
In a statement, Martinez said the memo had inadvertently been printed and a copy wound up in his pocket. He passed the memo to a Democratic colleague, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, by mistake, believing it was a one-page summary of the Schiavo bill.
Several factors explain why the legislative push has lost steam.
Since Congress returned to work this week, much of its schedule has been postponed because of the death of Pope John Paul II on Saturday. Many lawmakers are attending the funeral rites at the Vatican.
But even before Congress reconvened, public reaction to Washington’s involvement in the Schiavo case had seemed to lessen the push for legislation on end-of-life issues. Several public opinion polls in the days before Schiavo’s death showed that a majority of Americans disapproved of the congressional intervention.
Leaders of several social conservative groups broadly approved of Congress’ action. But at this point, they appear to be directing their anger away from legislation and toward the looming confrontation with Democrats over the confirmation process for federal judges.
At this point, Democrats, many of whom opposed the congressional intervention, appear to have more interest in using the Schiavo case to promote legislation.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is hoping the controversy will advance a bill to make it easier for older Americans to sign living wills, a measure he introduced a year ago that got little traction before the Schiavo case.
“If there is a lesson to be learned from the tragic events of the past few weeks, it is the importance of having a living will,” said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who appeared with Nelson on Wednesday to draw attention to the bill.
The legislation would authorize Medicare to pay for beneficiaries to go to a doctor to discuss their preferences regarding artificial life support and other end-of-life issues. It would also make living wills signed in one state legally binding in all states and fund a public-relations campaign to educate the public about options.
“This is on the minds of so many, and there is a great need to be educated on this,” Nelson told reporters.
Nelson said he wasn’t sure why more Republicans hadn’t signed on to his bill yet, but he expected that to change.
“Everybody just got back” from recess, he said. “I’m going to work it as hard as I can.”
Enzi did not express support for Nelson’s bill on living wills, but committee spokesman Craig Orfield said the chairman would do so in the future.
Democrats also have referred to the Schiavo case in arguing against two Republican proposals: reducing Medicaid benefits and capping medical malpractice judgments.
“Shamefully, in the same month that Congress intervenes in the case of Terri Schiavo, the House of Representatives approved a budget that would deny care to thousands of Americans who, like Terri Schiavo, rely on Medicaid for their health and hope,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the health committee’s ranking Democrat.
Referring to a Republican proposal to limit malpractice awards, Kennedy added, “Many of our colleagues who led the effort to intervene are also urging Congress to impose arbitrary caps on the very kinds of medical malpractice awards that sustained her life.”
Conservative activists have said the Schiavo case will buttress their position in the brewing battle over the federal judiciary. They are urging Republican leaders in the Senate to change the chamber’s rules to prevent Democrats from filibustering judicial nominees.
Despite pressure from the president and other Republicans, federal judges repeatedly denied appeals in the Schiavo case. Conservatives say that supports their argument that federal judges tend to intervene on behalf of liberal causes but fail to do so on behalf of conservative ones.
Democrats held a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court on Wednesday, pleading with their Republican colleagues not to overturn centuries of precedent for what they described as short-term political gain.
“The Republican leadership says this is about putting judges on the bench. The truth is that the ‘nuclear option’ is the result of the Republican Party’s arrogance of power,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
The proposal to outlaw the filibuster for judicial nominees is frequently termed the “nuclear option,” because of its potential for escalating the partisan rancor on Capitol Hill.