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Congress Gives Parents a Voice in Schiavo Case

Times Staff Writer

With the clock running down on how much longer Terri Schiavo can remain alive, congressional leaders Saturday announced an unprecedented agreement that would allow Schiavo’s parents to petition the federal courts to have a feeding tube replaced for their brain-damaged daughter.

The agreement, which involves emergency weekend sessions of the House and Senate, is the first time Congress has intervened directly in an individual right-to-die case.

The announcement came in dramatic fashion, trumpeted by conservative Republican leaders who persuaded Democrats to agree to the measure as long as it pertained only to the 41-year-old Florida woman and did not open the way for moving other such emotionally charged cases into the federal courts.

The White House announced Saturday night that President Bush would fly to Washington from his Texas ranch today to be able to sign the emergency legislation. Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the president was standing with all those working to save Schiavo’s life.

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Schiavo’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, have fought to keep her on life support, even to the point of asking her husband to relinquish to them his position as her legal guardian. Michael Schiavo has maintained that his wife did not wish to be kept alive through artificial means. The Schindlers say their daughter has been misdiagnosed and could improve with therapy.

Outside the nursing facility in Florida where Schiavo is being cared for, her mother pleaded earlier Saturday for lawmakers and the president to intervene. “Please, please, please save my little girl,” she said. A vigil was kept at the hospice in Pinellas Park; three people were arrested when they tried to enter the facility.

Michael Schiavo, who had sought to have her feeding tube removed, said that Congress was “getting into something they know nothing about.”

“And it’s sad,” he said. “If they can do it to me, they can do it to everyone in this country.”

Terri Schiavo’s case has become a cause celebre for evangelical Christians, who have opposed efforts by her husband to end the medical measures that have kept her alive for the past 15 years. Schiavo is in a vegetative state after suffering severe neurological damage when a chemical imbalance caused her to stop breathing. She is able breathe on her own but cannot speak or eat.

Schiavo’s case, which raises the difficult issues of assisted suicide and right to life, has been championed by conservatives and evangelical Christians, who turned to Republicans in Congress for help after a Florida court ordered the feeding tube removed. Democrats kept a low profile on the issue, but some cooperated with GOP leaders in the back-stage negotiations this weekend.

The Democrats agreed to allow the Republicans to move forward with a series of elaborate and unusual parliamentary maneuvers, bringing action on the narrowly drawn legislation.

The Senate, meeting Saturday evening, passed a special adjournment resolution that opened the way for the House and Senate to meet in emergency session today to take up legislation that would allow federal courts to consider accepting jurisdiction in the case. Until now, it has been in the hands of Florida state courts, which have supported the arguments of Schiavo’s husband.

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If a federal judge should decide to accept the case, a court order would presumably be issued to reinstall the feeding tube while the matter was under consideration.

The House is poised to consider the measure at 1 p.m. today under a unanimous consent rule. If that fails, it would take up the measure again at 12:01 a.m. Monday by suspending the House’s regular calendar and voting on the measure by voice acclamation, Republican leaders said.

The Senate would act soon afterward, sending the measure to the president for his signature.

Few members of Congress are likely to be on hand for these votes, since most have begun Easter recess. But in this case, only a majority of members present is needed for approval.

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The fast-moving legislative timetable may raise the curtain on an equally dramatic legal gambit.

Schiavo’s parents would presumably turn to the U.S. Court for the Middle District of Florida and ask a federal judge to keep their daughter alive against her husband’s wishes.

Assuming they file the petition sometime Monday, Schiavo -- who is physically incapable of feeding herself or accepting food by mouth -- already would have gone three days without sustenance. Medical experts say a human generally can live about seven days without fluids.

Given the high emotions aroused by the case, any legal action by the parents in federal court would almost certainly be challenged by Schiavo’s husband. The result could be legal skirmishes and appeals that eventually lead to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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But the congressional action alone was a clear victory for Schiavo’s parents, as well as for their supporters, religious groups and the conservative wing of the Republican majority in Congress. It turned what had been a largely local and personal struggle over one woman’s right to live or die into a high-stakes Washington political issue with highly charged religious and moral overtones.

“We are confident this compromise addresses everyone’s concerns,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who has taken the lead in championing the parents’ cause.

“We are confident it will provide Mrs. Schiavo a clear and appropriate avenue for appeal in federal court, and most importantly, we are confident this compromise will restore nutrition and hydration to Mrs. Schiavo as long as that appeal endures.”

Democratic Rep. James L. Oberstar of Minnesota worked with his Republican counterparts in putting together the measure titled “For the Relief of the Parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo.” He encouraged his Democratic colleagues to approve the bill because it was “carefully crafted and narrowly targeted” for the sole use of Schiavo’s father and mother.

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“The legislation does no harm,” he said, “while the longer term legal matter is resolved.”

Not all Democrats saw it that way. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) said it was “unconscionable that Congress had decided to continue to intercede.”

He added that he would object to the unanimous consent proposal in the House today, which could delay action until after midnight Monday.

Schiavo’s husband has pursued the effort to end his wife’s life because, he has said, she had made it clear to him before suffering brain damage that she would never want to be kept alive in a dire medical condition. Terri Schiavo left no written, living will.

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The parents, who are Catholic, have repeatedly petitioned the state courts in Florida, arguing that she responds to some stimuli and should not be allowed to die. A state judge ordered the tube disconnected at 1 p.m. Friday.

The parents had tried to get federal court action as well, but U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. ruled in Tampa on Friday that they did not have legal standing in the federal system.

“The fact that [the parents] have exhausted their state court appellate options without success does not provide this court with jurisdiction over the matter,” Moody ruled.

That prompted conservatives in Congress to begin pushing for legislation giving the parents standing in federal court.

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The proposed legislation says that the Middle District of Florida, where Moody sits, “shall have jurisdiction to hear, determine and render judgment” on a petition from the parents “relating to the withholding or withdrawal of food, fluids, or medical treatment necessary to sustain her life.”

It adds that “any parent of Theresa Marie Schiavo shall have standing to bring a suit under this act” into the federal courts. It also makes clear that “nothing in this act shall constitute a precedent with respect to future legislation” and that it shall have no effect on other families faced with assisted suicide situations.

The Senate agreed at 6:20 p.m. Saturday to allow the House and Senate to convene today to take up the bill, despite earlier plans to be away from Washington for Easter recess.

“I’m pleased with our progress so far to give Terri Schiavo one last chance at life,” Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said on the Senate floor.

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Presiding in the Senate chair was Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who said, “We’ve got the ball rolling.”

Earlier DeLay, in announcing the compromise, said that the clock was Terri Schiavo’s greatest enemy.

“The longer we wait, the worse dehydrated she will get,” he said. “Most people need to understand she will not die of starvation. She will die of dehydration, and that takes no more than seven days and the longer you go without fluids, the more possible that infections set in,” DeLay said.

DeLay, who has been personally chastising Michael Schiavo, did not spare him on Saturday. “I don’t have a whole lot of respect for a man that has treated this woman in this way,” he said. “What kind of man is he?”

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Michael Schiavo said he felt like the government had just trampled all over his personal life. “It’s just incomprehensible that a government can walk all over somebody’s private judicial matter because of their own personal feelings,” Schiavo said Friday on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Peter Wallsten in Crawford, Texas, and John-Thor Dahlburg in Pinellas Park, Fla.


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