Capping a day and night of political, legal and emotional drama, Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation early this morning permitting the parents of a brain-damaged Florida woman to ask a federal judge to order her feeding tube reconnected.
The president, who traveled Sunday from his Texas ranch to the White House for the sole purpose of signing the bill, did so less than an hour after the House voted at 12:45 a.m. EST to pass the legislation, 203 to 58. The Senate passed the bill Sunday afternoon by unanimous consent, with only three senators present.
"In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws, and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life," Bush said in a statement. "This presumption is especially critical for those like Terri Schiavo who live at the mercy of others."
Outside the hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla., where Schiavo has lived for several years, her family was exultant after the vote was announced. "We're very, very, very thankful to have crossed this bridge," said Suzanne Vitadamo, Schiavo's sister, "and we are very hopeful that the federal courts will follow the will of Congress and save my sister's life."
The legislation would give Schiavo's parents the standing to file suit in federal court on their daughter's behalf.
"Our petition will be quite simple," said David C. Gibbs III, an attorney for the parents. "Please get the food and water back to Terri immediately."
At 2:15 a.m., Gibbs said he had prepared a lawsuit and a request for a restraining order and was leaving from the hospice on the 20-minute ride across Tampa Bay to file both at the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.
"I'm moving really quickly because Terri's waiting." Gibbs said. He said a judge was on his way to the court and that a ruling was expected sometime overnight.
If a judge agreed to order that the feeding tube be reinserted, the decision has to be hand-delivered to the hospice. As soon as it is received, officials planned to whisk Schiavo to a hospital for the procedure.
Schiavo, 41, has been in what court-appointed doctors have described as a persistent vegetative state since 1990, although some physicians disagree that her condition is that dire. She can breathe on her own but is unable to eat or speak.
Her husband, Michael, who is Schiavo's legal guardian, has maintained that she had told him she would not want to be kept alive in such circumstances. Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, dispute that position and contend that their daughter's condition could improve with intensive therapy. Schiavo left no living will instructing her family of her wishes.
The two sides have fought for years over whether she should be allowed to die or be kept alive by a feeding tube, which was put in place shortly after a chemical imbalance caused her to stop breathing temporarily and brain damage. The tube was disconnected Friday afternoon. Doctors said that if the tube is not reconnected, she will die within two weeks.
Florida's House last week approved a bill blocking the withholding of food and water from patients in a persistent vegetative state who did not leave instructions about their care. But hours later, the state Senate defeated a similar bill.
Also last week, the Schindlers, who fought unsuccessfully to replace Michael Schiavo as their daughter's legal guardian, exhausted their appeals in the Florida state courts, which have consistently supported the husband's position. In a last-ditch attempt to forestall removal of the tube, the Schindlers asked a federal judge to intervene, but the judge ruled that they had no legal standing to act on their daughter's behalf.
Congress then stepped in; the legislation approved this morning was written to give Schiavo's parents standing in the matter and to take the case to federal court, where a judge will decide whether to accept it.
If the case does go forward, the federal court will hear the case anew, without considering any previous judicial action. In practice, that would require that the feeding tube be reconnected, as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) noted Sunday on the nearly empty Senate floor, "because Terri would need to live in order for the court to consider the case."
After the vote, Bob Schindler went to Schiavo's room at the Woodside Hospice to give her the news. "I asked her if she was ready to take a little ride," Schindler said, referring to the anticipated trip to a hospital for the procedure. When he told his daughter of the vote, he said, "She had a big smile on her face -- so help me."
The extraordinary action in Congress began Sunday with congressional Republicans believing they had a swift path to approval for the legislation, which they dubbed "the Palm Sunday compromise."
"Time is important," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said before Air Force One left Texas. "I think hours do matter."
Bush returned to Washington about 4:30 p.m., just as Frist, on the Senate floor, won passage of the legislation. Although Senate Democrats could have objected in order to delay the proceedings, none chose to do so.
But that was not the case in the House where Democrats forced Republicans to agree to three hours of debate and a roll-call vote, which required that a quorum of 218 members return to Washington. In the end, 261 of the House's 435 members did so.
The unusual House session began at 9 p.m. with Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, stating that passage of the legislation would give Schiavo's case "the federal court review that her situation demands." The Florida courts, he said, were "enforcing a merciless directive to deprive Terri Schiavo of her right to life."
Democrats responded that Congress was attempting to substitute its judgment for years of court decisions and expert medical opinions.
"This is heart-wrenching for all Americans," said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.). "The issue before this Congress is not an emotional one. It's simply one that respects the rule of law in the state of Florida."
"This Congress is on the verge of telling states, courts, judges and juries that their decisions do not matter," said another Florida Democrat, Rep. Jim Davis.
Arguing that politicians were not qualified to make medical decisions, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass) said, "The caption tonight ought to be: 'We're not doctors, we just play them on C-SPAN.' "
But Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) argued that "disabled people deserve what everyone else deserves: to have their fundamental human rights asserted."
Earlier in the day, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) charged that the Democrats' maneuvers had "cost Mrs. Schiavo two meals already today" from her feeding tube. "Every hour is terribly important to Terry Schiavo," he said.
But Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) complained that Republicans were trying to ram the bill through and set unwanted precedents.
"All of this is being done in the dead of night," she said of the GOP's quick-step efforts to push through the bill.
In a Sunday afternoon news conference and on the House floor, Republicans insisted that there was some medical evidence indicating Schiavo's condition was not hopeless. They said she had responded to her parents, and they offered affidavits from experts that future medical breakthroughs could improve her quality of life.
Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), a physician, said that as far as he was concerned, "she does not meet my definition of a persistent vegetative state.... She responds. She doesn't just lie there like a piece of meat."
Democrats insisted that Republicans were seizing on the matter for political gain. They pointed to an eyes-only memo for GOP senators that described it as a "great political issue" because it played to the Christian conservative movement, which makes up much of the Republican base.
The unsigned, one-page memo, reported Sunday in the Washington Post, specifically targeted Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), up for reelection next year, because he had not embraced the cause to reinstate the feeding tube. "This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue," the memo said.
Frist said Sunday that he was unfamiliar with the memo and denounced any assertions that politics was driving conservatives to help the parents get into federal court.
The case began in February 1990, when Schiavo suffered a heart attack, possibly because of a potassium imbalance, depriving her brain of oxygen. Her husband and parents had a falling-out over her care three years later, shortly after Terri and Michael Schiavo were awarded more than $1 million in two medical malpractice suits.
Much of that money went for her earlier care and for legal fees. For the last five years she has lived at the Woodside Hospice north of St. Petersburg. Medicaid has paid for her medications for the last two years; the hospice provides its services at no charge. During the lengthy legal dispute, Schiavo's feeding tube has been removed and replaced twice before.
Republicans were encouraged by a large group of Schindler supporters gathered in front of the hospice.
"I'm pleading with the moms and dads to call their congressmen and help them pass this bill for Terri," Mary Schindler said.
For their part, Democrats turned to Schiavo's husband, praising him for trying to uphold his wife's wish not to be kept alive by prolonged measures.
"I made this promise to her and I'm going to stick to it," said Michael Schiavo, who over the years has fathered two children with his girlfriend, with whom he lives. "I'm going to stay right by [my wife's] side."
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The Schiavo measure
Excerpts of a bill passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives in the Terri Schiavo case:
The United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida shall have jurisdiction to hear, determine and render judgment on a suit or claim by or on behalf of Theresa Marie Schiavo for the alleged violation of any right of Theresa Marie Schiavo under the Constitution or laws of the United States relating to the withholding or withdrawal of food, fluids or medical treatment necessary to sustain her life.
Any parent of Theresa Marie Schiavo shall have standing to bring a suit under this act. The suit may be brought against any other person who was a party to state court proceedings relating to the withholding or withdrawal of food, fluids or medical treatment necessary to sustain the life of Theresa Marie Schiavo, or who may act pursuant to a state court order authorizing or directing the withholding or withdrawal of food, fluids or medical treatment necessary to sustain her life.
In such a suit, the District Court shall determine de novo any claim of a violation of any right of Theresa Marie Schiavo within the scope of this act, notwithstanding any prior state court determination and regardless of whether such a claim has previously been raised, considered or decided in state court proceedings. The District Court shall entertain and determine the suit without any delay or abstention in favor of state court proceedings, and regardless of whether remedies available in the state courts have been exhausted.
After a determination of the merits of a suit brought under this act, the District Court shall issue such declaratory and injunctive relief as may be necessary to protect the rights of Theresa Marie Schiavo under the Constitution and laws of the United States relating to the withholding or withdrawal of food, fluids or medical treatment necessary to sustain her life.
Source: Associated Press
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How California delegation voted
By a vote of 203 to 58, the House passed a bill to give the parents of Terri Schiavo the right to file suit in federal court over the withdrawal of food and medical treatment needed to sustain her life. Here's how the California congressional delegation voted:
No vote: Reps. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento) and Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank).
All other members of the California congressional delegation were not present.
Source: Los Angeles Times
Serrano reported from Washington; Dahlburg from Pinellas Park, Fla.