Congressional leaders tried again after being rebuffed by a determined Florida judge and agreed yesterday to pass a compromise that they said would require doctors to restore sustenance to Terri Schiavo for the third time in four years.
President Bush said he will return early from his ranch in Crawford, Tex., to sign the bill, which would allow a federal court to review the case.
The extraordinary intervention by Washington for a single person, in a wrenching question that families typically wrestle with in private, required a Saturday session of the Senate during Easter recess and will bring both chambers back to the Capitol on Palm Sunday.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) stepped into a nearly empty chamber at 6:15 p.m. yesterday and said Congress "has been working nonstop over the last three days to do its part to uphold human dignity and affirm a culture of life."
Frist said he is committed "to see this legislation pass and give Terri Schiavo one last chance at life."
The legislation, which congressional leaders said they plan to pass today or tomorrow, would prolong a medical and legal drama that has pitted the incapacitated Florida woman's husband against her parents.
In a memo distributed only to Republican senators, the Schiavo case was characterized as "a great political issue" that could pay dividends with Christian conservatives, whose support is essential in midterm elections such as those coming up in 2006.
Schiavo, 41, spent a full day off of nourishment and fluids yesterday at a hospice in the Gulf Coast suburb of Pinellas Park, Fla. Her feeding tube was removed Friday afternoon after a state judge ignored subpoenas from Congress and enforced a deadline that lawmakers had thought they could thwart by declaring her a witness who must be protected for a future hearing they would conduct at her bedside. Late Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, denied an emergency request from the House committee that had issued the subpoenas.
Doctors said she could probably live as long as two weeks before dying of dehydration. Schiavo has been in a vegetative state for 15 years after a heart attack brought on by a chemical imbalance caused severe brain damage.
The two-page compromise bill, "for the benefit of the parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo," would give a federal court in Florida the jurisdiction to consider a claim "relating to the withholding or withdrawal of food, fluids or medical treatment necessary to sustain her life."
House Republican leaders had wanted a bill that would apply to similar cases across the nation, but they agreed to limit it to Schiavo as the main element of the compromise with the Senate. That difference in bills the two chambers passed last week had provoked unusually bitter exchanges between Republican leaders.
Outside Schiavo's hospice in Florida, tension and anxiety rose among the demonstrators who have turned the roadside into a small tent city. At least three protesters were arrested early yesterday, including a man who said he is a priest and who walked toward the hospice demanding to administer Holy Communion to Schiavo.
Police increased the number of officers guarding the hospice, even as Schiavo's parents -- who are fighting to have her feeding tube restored -- asked demonstrators to refrain from civil disobedience.
In Washington, lawmakers announced the agreement four hours after Schiavo's mother, Mary Schindler, went before television cameras on her way into the hospice and tearfully begged, "President Bush, politicians in Washington: Please, please, please save my little girl."