PINELLAS PARK, Fla., March 18 -- Deep inside a shingled hospice, cloistered in a guarded room far from a gathering of protesters, Terri Schiavo on Friday afternoon stopped receiving the vitamin-enriched fluid that keeps her alive.
Doctors removed the feeding tube of America's most famous brain-damaged patient after a Florida judge rejected efforts by Republican leaders in Congress to stall the end of her feeding. Unless congressional Republicans can get the tube restored, medical experts said, Schiavo will die within two weeks.
The removal came after a dramatic sequence of legal feints that began Friday morning when the House Government Reform Committee issued subpoenas to Schiavo, a woman who has been unable to speak for 15 years; her husband, Michael Schiavo; and several doctors and employees of her hospice, ordering them to appear at a congressional hearing March 25. Then, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee formally invited Michael and Terri Schiavo to testify on Monday. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's statement pointedly noted that it is a federal crime for anyone to interfere with a person's testimony before Congress.
The maneuvering set off a power struggle pitting Congress's top leaders against Pinellas County Circuit Judge George W. Greer, who ruled against them.
"I don't think legislative bodies or agencies have business in a court proceeding," Greer told a lawyer representing the House Committee on Government Reform during a hastily called teleconference. "The fact that you -- your committee -- decided to do something today doesn't create an emergency."
There was a brief pause, and then a lawyer stationed at the hospice asked Greer whether his order would go into effect immediately. Greer's answer was "Yes."
On Friday night, Frist (Tenn.) and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) announced that congressional committees will work through the weekend, saying in a statement that they "are committed to reaching agreement on legislation that provides an opportunity to save Mrs. Schiavo's life." The House committee asked the U.S. Supreme Court to order the feeding tube reinserted while it appeals in lower courts to have its subpoenas recognized.
Greer's decision barely registered as a setback on 102nd Avenue in Pinellas Park, where orange plastic construction fences lined a long stretch of roadside to keep the crush of media people and demonstrators away from businesses near Woodside Hospice. A few people knelt in prayer when the ruling was announced. But the conservative Christians singing hymns outside the hospice and the antiabortion activists waving signs knew what the lawyers and everyone else involved in the case knew: There is still time to fight.
"As long as someone is alive, there is hope," said Giovanna Brann, 53, who drove to the hospice from her home in nearby Largo. "If you love someone so much, you don't pull the plug."
Schiavo's feeding tube has been removed twice before, most recently in 2003 when a law pushed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) gave him the authority to override Greer's orders and restart Schiavo's tube-feeding six days after it had been stopped. The law was later declared unconstitutional.
The legislative focal point of the case -- once centered in Florida's capital, Tallahassee, where conservatives failed on Thursday to pass laws blocking the tube removal -- has shifted to Washington. The U.S. House and Senate agreed in principle Thursday to pass legislation that would move jurisdiction in the case to the federal courts, effectively leaving Greer powerless. But the two legislative bodies were unable to reach a consensus before adjourning.
Now the Senate, whose members had planned to take two weeks of vacation, plans to reconvene Monday to debate a bill aimed at saving the life of Schiavo, 41. The prospect of Schiavo's death inflamed emotions in the Capitol on Friday as lawyers in Washington and Florida did battle.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) called the removal of the feeding tube "barbarism" and "an act of medical terrorism."
"Right now, murder is being committed against a defenseless American citizen in Florida," he said.