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Lawmakers Scramble to Tackle Schiavo Case

Florida Senate Plans Another Vote; Hill Republicans Announce Additional Efforts

By Charles Babington and Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page A02

On Capitol Hill and in the state House in Tallahassee, lawmakers trying to stop the removal of a feeding tube from a brain-damaged Florida woman struggled to keep her alive yesterday.

But their efforts fell short, and unless the Florida Senate votes this morning to prohibit the removal of the tube from Terri Schiavo, who lives in a persistent vegetative state in a hospice in Pinellas Park, her husband will be free at 1 p.m. today to stop the feeding that has kept her alive for 15 years.

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In a rare attempt to intervene in a pending legal dispute, the U.S. House approved legislation late Wednesday to force Schiavo's case out of the Florida courts and into the federal system, and the Senate passed a similar measure yesterday. But House members adjourned before the bills could be reconciled.

Lawmakers had planned to vacate Washington for a 17-day recess starting today, but Republicans announced late last night that Congress will reconvene Monday to renew efforts to keep Schiavo alive. "I'm hopeful we will find a solution," Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) told colleagues. According to the House GOP leadership, a committee will issue a subpoena today to stop the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube, the Associated Press reported.

Doctors say Schiavo could be expected to die in about two weeks if the feeding tube is removed. Those fighting to keep her alive, including her parents and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), hope the state legislature might intervene today. Lawmakers, however, were at an impasse yesterday. The Florida Senate voted 21 to 16 to reject a bill that would have prevented the removal of feeding tubes from patients whose families are split on whether to continue the feeding.

Florida House members hope that the state Senate might consider its version of similar legislation today, but state Sen. Rod Smith, a Democrat from Gainesville, told the Associated Press that "the last vote was a fairly emphatic statement that the Senate does not wish to go further."

Schiavo, 41, suffered severe brain damage 15 years ago when her heart temporarily stopped. Court-appointed doctors say she is in a persistent vegetative state, but U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a physician, told the Senate he disagreed with that diagnosis after viewing videostapes of Schiavo. Her husband, Michael Schiavo, has said she would not want to be kept alive under such conditions, putting him at odds with her parents, who have battled to keep her feeding tube in place.

Schiavo's case has drawn nationwide attention for months. President Bush yesterday called the case complex, but he said that when "there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life."

Both houses of Congress agreed this week -- in unrecorded voice votes -- to let federal courts take the Schiavo case away from Florida's courts. The House bill would require federal courts to review cases involving "incapacitated" people.

But some senators from both parties said the House language was too broad. At 5:35 p.m. yesterday, the Senate approved a bill that would apply only to Schiavo and would allow, but not require, a federal court review of her case. But the House had adjourned 75 minutes earlier for the long-planned two-week recess.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said in a statement: "It's unconscionable that Senate Democrats . . . would not allow a vote to move forward on critical legislation the House passed last night to save and protect Terri Schiavo's life." But key GOP senators, including Martinez and Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.), defended their Democratic colleagues and said the Senate had done all it possibly could, under rules that require unanimous consent, to vote on a bill on short notice.

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said: "If the House Republicans refuse to pass our bipartisan bill, they bear responsibility for the consequences."

The effort by conservative GOP lawmakers in Florida to pass a bill aimed at preventing the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube stalled in the state Senate late yesterday afternoon after a bill was approved by the Florida House. Florida Rep. Dennis K. Baxley (R-Ocala), who sponsored the House measure, said Senate colleagues told him that they are short of votes and are going to delay bringing up the bill for a vote.

"Every day we're here," Baxley said, "the heat is going to go up on the Senate to do something."

Florida lawmakers have been deluged with phone calls and e-mails to pass laws that would keep Schiavo alive. Baxley, a funeral-home director, vowed to continue pushing for legislation to prevent the tube removal, even if his measure fails.

Gov. Bush has said he would do whatever is legally possible to prevent the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube, but the courts have rebuffed him. In October 2003, the governor pushed the passage of a narrowly focused bill, dubbed "Terri's Law," that gave him the authority to override the Florida courts and order Schiavo's tube-feeding resumed six days after it was disconnected. It was the second time that Schiavo's tube-feeding had been stopped and then resumed.

The Florida Supreme Court declared Terri's Law unconstitutional last September, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the governor's appeal.

An appeals court in Florida this week refused to overturn the trial judge's decision to deny a request by the governor's Department of Families and Children to delay the tube removal so it could investigate allegations that Schiavo has been abused, leaving her parents with almost no legal options -- short of an unlikely intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court -- to keep her alive.

Roig-Franzia reported from Florida.

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