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Congress Passes Schiavo Measure

Congress had largely steered clear of the Schiavo case until last week, when appeals to Florida courts were exhausted and the state's GOP-controlled legislature appeared unlikely to step in. Although numerous lawmakers, especially Democrats, expressed unease over interfering with a state court's rulings and Michael Schiavo's assertion that he knows his brain-damaged wife's desires, they generally have been quieter than the conservative activists and right-to-life groups campaigning vociferously to keep Schiavo alive.

A single senator could have postponed yesterday's action but none did so, even though some criticized Congress's actions. "I think it's unwise for Congress to intervene in a very deeply personal matter such as this," Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said on CNN's "Late Edition."

Bobby Schindler, the brother of Terri Schiavo, meets with reporters at the Capitol. He said he came to Capitol Hill "to help save my sister's life." (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

Schiavo Senate Bill
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Terri Schiavo Legal Case
The Battle for Schiavo

A look at the long legal battle over whether Floridian Terri Schiavo, 41, may be taken off life support.

Feb. 1990: Schiavo suffers brain damage from heart failure.

Feb. 2000: Circuit Judge George W. Greer rules that Schiavo’s feeding tube may be removed, as requested by her husband.

April 2001: The feeding tube is removed. Two days later, Circuit Judge Frank Quesada orders doctors to reinsert it.

June 2003: The 2nd District Court of Appeal upholds Greer’s ruling to remove the tube.

Oct.: Gov. Jeb Bush files a federal court brief urging that Schiavo be kept alive. He is denied.

Doctors remove the feeding tube. The state legislature passes a bill, called "Terri’s Law," allowing Bush to intervene. He orders the feeding tube reinserted.

Sept. 2004: Florida’s Supreme Court rules that Terri’s Law is unconstitutional.

Jan. 2005: The U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear the governor’s appeal.

Feb.: Greer grants an emergency stay blocking the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube. He later sets March 18 as the day the tube may be removed.

Wednesday: House passes legislation to try to block efforts to let Schiavo die.

Thursday: Senate passes separate legislation.

Friday: House committee subpoenas Schiavo and others. Florida judge blocks the subpoenas; U.S. Supreme Court lets that ruling stand. Feeding tube is removed.

Yesterday: Senate passes legislation giving federal courts jurisdiction in the case.

This morning: House passes the same bill, sending it to President Bush for his signature.

SOURCES: Associated Press, staff reports

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House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), traveling in the Middle East, said in a statement: "Congressional leaders have no business substituting their judgment for that of multiple state courts that have extensively considered the issues in this intensely personal family matter. The actions of the majority in attempting to pass constitutionally dubious legislation are highly irregular and an improper use of legislative authority."

Congressional GOP leaders were unapologetic for intervening in a way that is likely to raise constitutional separation-of-powers questions and that is at odds with traditional Republican calls for honoring marital privilege and limiting the role of federal courts. "Every hour is terribly important to Terri Schiavo," DeLay said.

House GOP leaders had hoped to vote yesterday afternoon. But they were operating under rules that allowed even one objection to prevent approval of the bill before today. They spent much of the afternoon and evening scrambling to summon 218 colleagues -- the minimum for a quorum -- in order to pass the bill in the earliest moments of today. Congress had begun a two-week recess, and many lawmakers were traveling overseas or domestically. A two-thirds majority was required to pass the bill because it was on a "suspension calendar," usually reserved for non-controversial matters.

The three-hour House debate, however, was anything but uncontroversial. Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) accused the Florida courts of "enforcing a merciless directive." He invoked the civil rights movement and said it "required federal judicial action" to right the wrongs of southern courts.

But Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) chastised Republicans. "We are not doctors," she said. "We are not bioethicists."

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said it is foolish to think the bill will not become a legal precedent. "Every aggrieved party in any similar litigation now will go to Congress, come to Congress and ask us to make a series of decisions," he said. "This is a terribly difficult decision which we are, institutionally, totally incompetent to make."

When reporters asked DeLay how the bill squares with conservatives' calls to get the federal government out of state affairs, he flashed a copy of the Constitution. "We, as Congress, have every right to make sure that the constitutional rights of Terri Schiavo are protected, and that's what we're doing," he said. "It has nothing to do with state's rights. We aren't overriding state law."

Schiavo's brother, Bobby Schindler, visited the Capitol yesterday, accompanied by an official of the National Right to Life Committee. He told reporters he was there "to help save my sister's life."

In the House Press Gallery, Schindler encountered Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), who had said the bill set "a very dangerous precedent that will come back to haunt us." As Schindler described his sister and produced a video disk that he said shows she is functional, Moran nodded sympathetically, accepting the disk, but said he had not changed his mind.

Moran later cited the encounter in a floor speech. "I don't know who's right and who's wrong" in the battle over Schiavo, he said. "But that's the point: Neither do my colleagues." Moran said: "Ten courts, and 19 judges all have reached the same conclusion," ruling in favor of Michael Schiavo's request on his wife's behalf.

Reflecting on the estrangement of the Schiavo and Schindler families, Schindler told reporters: "It amazes me that Michael Schiavo is trying to portray himself as a loving, caring husband, when he's abandoned my sister. She's been warehoused now over 12 years, and he has been cohabitating with another woman for 10 years and has two children with this woman. That is his family."

Michael Schiavo has acknowledged the relationship and children, but he and his lawyer have sharply rejected other criticism, saying outside groups and elected officials have seized the issue for political purposes.

Outside Woodside Hospice, where Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was removed Friday, dozens of demonstrators -- some singing hymns, others quietly praying -- maintained the vigil they have kept for days. An attorney for her parents filed a motion with a federal appellate court to have the feeding tube reconnected as soon as Bush signed the bill into law.

House opposition to the Schiavo legislation was led by Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who said the legislation is "totally unconstitutional" and likely to be struck down by federal courts. "Congress is violating the separation of powers that have kept a distinct role for the judicial and legislative branches for over two centuries," Wexler said.

Maryland Democrats Benjamin L. Cardin, Steny H. Hoyer and Chris Van Hollen voted against the bill, and Elijah E. Cummings and Albert C. Wynn joined Republicans Roscoe G. Bartlett and Wayne T. Gilchrest in voting for it. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D) did not vote.

Virginia Democrats Moran and Robert C. "Bobby" Scott opposed the measure; Republicans Eric I. Cantor, Jo Ann S. Davis, Thomas M. Davis III, Thelma D. Drake, J. Randy Forbes, Virgil H. Goode Jr. and Robert W. Goodlatte voted for it. Frank W. Wolf (R) and Rick Boucher (D) did not vote.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters that he is "going to look at my living will that I haven't looked at for about 10 years and be sure it still says exactly what I wanted it to say."

Staff writer Manuel Roig-Franzia in Florida contributed to this report.

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