A week after their unprecedented intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, Republican congressional leaders find themselves in a moral and political thicket, having advanced the cause as a right-to-life issue -- only to confront polls showing that the public does not see it that way.
"How deep is this Congress going to reach into the personal lives of each and every one of us?" asked Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), one of only five Republicans in the House to vote against the Schiavo bill.
Republican lawmakers and others engaged in the debate say an internal party dispute over the Schiavo case has ruptured, at least temporarily, the uneasy alliance between economic and social conservatives that twice helped President Bush get elected.
"Advocates of using federal power to keep this woman alive need to seriously study the polling data that's come out on this," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who has been talking to both social and economic conservatives about the fallout. "I think that a lot of conservative leaders assumed there was broader support for saying that they wanted to have the federal government save this woman's life."
Some Republicans said they do not believe the vote to allow a federal court to examine whether any of Schiavo's constitutional rights had been violated will become a political issue, especially since 47 House Democrats voted for the measure, while 53 voted against.
"It was not a partisan issue. It was one of conscience," said Rep. Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.), the chief deputy whip. "People will remember that the majority attempted to address a very difficult situation and did it with a real seriousness of purpose."
Democrats struggled with their own internal divisions over whether to join Republicans in urging federal courts to consider the Schiavo case -- or to oppose it as a dangerous legislative overreach. The decision of so many Democrats to support Republican action represented a rare moment of detente between the two otherwise warring parties.
Even House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), one of the most partisan politicians in Washington, conceded, "There's been incredible cooperation by the Democrats and Republicans." Aides in both parties say a shared concern about the fate of incapacitated people could lead to bipartisan legislation addressing their rights.
The fracas over congressional involvement has taken many GOP lawmakers by surprise. Most knew little about the case and were acting at the direction of their leaders, who armed them with the simple argument that they just wanted to give Schiavo a final chance, and that they wanted to err on the side of life. But because of the rush to act and the insistent approach of the leadership, Republicans had no debate about whether their vote could be seen as federal intrusion in a family matter, or as a violation of the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches. Both issues are concerns of many voters responding to polls, and of some legislators themselves.
Republican leaders knew from the outset they were entering new and possibly rocky terrain. DeLay said that he told Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) two weeks ago, "We have to do something for Terri Schiavo," but that the chairman was reluctant because, as DeLay recounted, "we don't have a precedent for doing private bills in these matters, and he didn't want to violate that precedent."
The majority leader's response to Sensenbrenner: "Be creative."
One senior GOP lawmaker involved in the negotiations, who did not want to speak for the record, said that DeLay, who is fighting ethics charges on several fronts, faced considerable pressure from Christian conservative groups to respond to pleas by the parents of the brain-damaged woman to intervene before her husband, Michael Schiavo, removed the feeding tube that kept her alive. The lawmaker said that DeLay "wanted to follow through" but added that many House Republicans were dubious and suspected that the leader's ethics problems were a motivating factor.
Republican concerns grew, the senior House GOP lawmaker said, as a succession of federal judges, some of them conservative appointees, rejected Congress's entreaty. "A lot of members are saying, 'Why did you put us through this?' " said the lawmaker, who agreed to recount the events on the condition that he not be named.
There has been similar grumbling in the Senate, where the Schiavo effort was led by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a former transplant surgeon who is retiring in 2006, presumably to run for president; Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a conservative Catholic who also may harbor presidential ambitions; and freshman Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.).
Aides to other Republican senators said there was little discussion of the matter outside that group. "It definitely would have gone down differently had it actually been considered," a senior aide to a moderate Republican senator said.
The stakes could be particularly high for Frist. Even as he shores up support with one crucial presidential primary voting bloc -- Christian conservatives -- he may have repelled another: small-government conservatives, who are particularly key in the New Hampshire primary. "A lot of Republicans who vote up here would be inclined to see this as a personal matter . . . and would be uncomfortable with what Congress did," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.
One wild card in the debate was the degree to which lawmakers, including DeLay and Frist, questioned Schiavo's medical condition -- a persistent vegetative state with no hope for recovery, according to the doctors who examined her. DeLay said of Schiavo, "She talks and she laughs and she expresses happiness and discomfort," and he blamed her inability to speak on the fact that "she's not been afforded any speech therapy -- none!"
In a Senate floor statement March 16, Frist referred to a videotaped exam he had seen of Schiavo and suggested there could be questions about her condition. He described her as having "a severe disability similar to what cerebral palsy might be." Neurologists and other experts say that Schiavo's facial expressions, captured on videotapes that her parents are circulating, are nothing more than involuntary movements. Scans show her cerebral cortex has been severely damaged, and other tests indicate no normal electrical activity in her brain.
Aggravating GOP frustrations are disturbing new polls, including a CBS survey that found that 82 percent of Americans -- including a whopping 68 percent of people who identify themselves as evangelical Christians -- think Congress's intervention was wrong.
Democrats, who note that the action is identified with the GOP-led Congress and the president, hope that the public's negative response could translate into a more general unease with Republican rule. "They look out of step," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), a Clinton White House adviser who runs the House Democrats' campaign committee. "This Congress is getting involved in things they shouldn't be getting involved in, and not getting involved in things they should be."
Republicans are "going to get kicked around a lot," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. On the other hand, he sees a silver lining in the otherwise miserable polls: The minority that does back congressional action probably supports it intensely, while the majority that disagrees "won't remember this woman's name in a few months."
Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.), who represents one of the toughest districts for Republicans and is exploring a run for governor, flew back to vote for the Schiavo bill and said he has no regrets.
"If civil rights issues are a federal issue, and I agree they are, how about the issue of life?" Beauprez asked. "If I'm going to be the only one standing up at the end of this that said, 'I stood for life,' I'm happy to do that."