Congress's decision to intervene in a brain-damaged Florida woman's case this week splintered the party loyalties of Washington area lawmakers, who explain their actions in the language of constitutional law and personal faith, not purely political calculation.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore minister who is weighing a statewide bid to succeed the retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D) next year, rarely splits with Democratic colleagues. However, he joined the House Republican majority in voting 203 to 58 early Monday to give jurisdiction to the federal courts over a state court decision to remove a feeding tube from Terri Schiavo.
"When I am dealing with an issue of life and death, I do everything in my power to leave politics at the door of the House chamber and vote according to my conscience and my Christian beliefs," Cummings said. "I do resent the fact that some have tried to use this issue . . . to get some type of political advantage."
In the Senate, Virginia's John W. Warner (R) joined Sarbanes in opposition to the measure, which has sparked a national debate over right-to-die issues that parallel the political wars fought over abortion rights between religious conservatives and antiabortion groups on the one side and secular liberals and libertarians on the other.
"That the misfortunes of life vested upon Theresa Marie Schiavo are a human tragedy, no one can deny," said Warner, who faced a bitter 1996 GOP primary challenge from conservatives. But, he said, "this is a principle of federalism which, I believe, is not being followed by Congress in enacting this legislation. . . . I believe it unwise for the Congress to take from the state of Florida its constitutional responsibility to resolve the issues in this case."
In floor statements, interviews and carefully worded statements in response to questions, members have described how they wrestled with their consciences and responsibility to future Congresses, as well as hundreds of constituent e-mails and dozens of telephone calls. They invoked God, faith and losses in their own families.
Still, as Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) put it, the cloud of partisan considerations hung over the chambers as they conducted their extraordinary weekend session.
"The reason this issue is before us, I think, is that it is all about religion and politics," Moran said, noting the clout of Christian conservatives in GOP primaries and of abortion-rights organizations in Democratic nominating fights, as well as key blocs such as Catholic and churchgoing black voters.
"But does not every religion teach, first of all, that no human being has the right to play God? And is not one of the very first principles of politics . . . that we should not use individual human tragedies, people suffering in anguish, [as] political pawns to appease the interest groups that keep us in power?" asked Moran, who opposed the measure.
Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) wrestled personally with life-and-death decisions in ways no other area member of Congress has. As governor from 1994 to 1998, he had the final say on condemned killers' appeals from death row. Allen said that in this case, he could not sit by and allow an innocent woman to starve to death.
"I believe in the sanctity of human life," Allen said. "Just because she has lost her ability to verbally communicate her feelings in no way means that she has lost her desire to live or her right to life. When in doubt, I think it is appropriate and, indeed, logical to presume that people want to live."
Allen, who faces reelection in 2006 and might seek the GOP nod for president in 2008, also echoed statements from a potential 2008 rival, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Frist, a heart surgeon, said after reviewing video recordings of Schiavo made by her family that he thought her vegetative condition did not appear to be permanent, a conclusion that drew criticism from medical ethicists and neurologists.
"When I observed her on videotapes, clearly [she] is conscious and has the ability to feel," Allen concurred, although he has no medical background.
Allen was joined in his support for the legislation, among Democrats, by Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. Albert R. Wynn, as well as by Cummings.
"This is a terrible tragedy. There was no living will and the family was divided," Mikulski said in a statement released in response to an inquiry. "I felt that it was appropriate under these unique circumstances that the court take one last look at this."
"This is a life-or-death vote," Wynn said in an interview. "We didn't get to vote on whether or not Congress should get involved. The vote was should the courts be allowed to review the case."
The Senate acted Sunday afternoon without a vote, forwarding legislation by "unanimous consent." Warner and Sarbanes said they would have voted against the legislation had there been a debate, but they did not block it out of deference to the will of the majority and because of time constraints.
"This is a very deeply personal matter and any final decision should be left to the family members and medical professionals," said Sarbanes, who like Mikulski commented yesterday for the first time about Schiavo in a written statement. Sarbanes's spokesman said the senator had not spoken out earlier because he had not been asked by reporters. "I did not object to the underlying legislation because it was clear that there was very strong support in both the House and the Senate to move forward with it, enabling the courts to further review this case in a prompt manner," Sarbanes said.
Other lawmakers voted along partisan lines. "If we ensure murderers and rapists the benefit of a federal review, we should do it for this helpless woman," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), traveling overseas, would have voted yes, his spokesman said.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is weighing a run for Senate next year, voted no, saying, "The Congress should not substitute its judgment for that of the Florida courts. . . . We should not be playing doctor, judge and jury."
Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), second-ranking Democrat in the House, said Florida courts ensured the fairness he would have sought for his own three daughters or late wife.