Some in GOP Fear Effort May Alienate Voters

Times Staff Writer

The extraordinary steps taken by congressional Republicans to save the life of Terri Schiavo have won plaudits from evangelical Christians and other conservative activists, but some Republicans worry about a potential backlash among others who view the intervention as an overbearing use of government power.

Just as Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation allowing federal courts to review whether Schiavo’s feeding tube should be withdrawn, a poll by ABC News found that 70% of those surveyed believed congressional intervention was inappropriate.

Though some GOP strategists have argued that the issue is a political winner for the party because it appeals to religious conservatives, other Republicans warn that the bold maneuver risks alienating swing voters as well as Republicans worried about government invasions of individual privacy.

“It goes beyond shameless politics,” said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster. “It becomes a more crystallized proof point that we are no longer the party of smaller government. We have become a party of ‘It doesn’t matter what size government is as long as it is imposing our set of values.’ ”


Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), before voting against the bill Bush later signed, asked: “How deep is this Congress going to reach into the personal lives of each and every one of us?”

Still, some Republican analysts say the immediate poll results -- and the concerns raised by Shays and others -- are not politically significant because the activists pushing to keep Schiavo alive care more passionately than those opposing that view.

“Intensity matters,” said Gary Bauer, a conservative leader who ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000. “The people who know the most about this controversy are the most likely to believe” that Schiavo should be allowed to live.

The Schiavo controversy does not split lawmakers or the country strictly along ideological lines; many people are influenced as much by their personal experiences as they are by political leanings.

The decisive legislative action on the Schiavo controversy is widely viewed within the political community as a show of strength for social conservatives, who are preparing for even bigger congressional battles.

Many of the activists are urging GOP leaders to move more aggressively this spring to win confirmation of Bush’s judicial nominees.

They argue that the Schiavo case reinforces the importance of placing conservatives in the judiciary.

“This is just one more perfect portrait of why we need to have fair and just men on the bench,” said Lanier Swann, director of government relations for Concerned Women of America, a conservative group that has made the Schiavo case a priority.


Bauer said the Schiavo controversy was the beginning of a much larger debate that would shape U.S. politics for years to come.

“We’re on the cusp of a really gigantic national debate about life and advances in medicine,” Bauer said. The Schiavo controversy “touches in a very important way in the whole debate on the sanctity of life, and it will encourage voters to believe that it is something Republicans feel strongly about.”

The fight over whether to remove the feeding tube that has kept Schiavo alive since a heart malfunction caused severe neurological damage in 1990 has become a cause celebre for the Christian evangelicals and antiabortion activists who were crucial to Bush’s reelection.

The issue came to a head in an extraordinary weekend session of Congress, when lawmakers were recalled from spring recess to vote on a bill to allow Schiavo’s parents to bring the case to federal court.


The political advantages of pursuing the legislation were trumpeted in a GOP staff memo circulated in the Senate late last week, although Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he had no knowledge of the memo.

“This is a great political issue,” the memo said, because it puts Democrats in a difficult position and because “the pro-life base will be very excited that the Senate is debating this important issue.”

But the ABC poll, conducted by telephone Sunday as Congress was acting, found that 63% supported removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube and 28% opposed it.

The poll also found that among Republicans, Congress’ action did not win strong backing. According to the poll, 58% of Republicans believed the intervention in the case was inappropriate, and 61% supported removing Schiavo’s tube.


The survey’s margin of error for its entire sample of 501 adults was plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

Among the Republicans surveyed, the margin of error was plus or minus 8 points.

The legislation passed the Senate on Sunday under the chamber’s unanimous consent rules. Three senators were on the floor -- Frist, Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.).

In the House, the bill passed at 12:45 a.m. EST Monday, 203 to 58, with 174 members not voting. Supporting it were 156 Republicans and 47 Democrats; opposing it were five Republicans and 53 Democrats.


Some of the conservative critics of Congress’ action say the issue goes to the core of what kind of party the GOP will become. They worry it will further erode the party’s commitment to limiting the role of the federal government.

“Conservatives who have criticized the idea that Washington should run everything ought to be sheepish” about getting involved in the Schiavo case, said David Boaz, an analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.