Schiavo Case Tests Priorities Of GOP
By Shailagh Murray and Mike Allen
A week after their unprecedented intervention in the Terri Schiavo
case, Republican congressional leaders find themselves in a moral
and political thicket, having advanced the cause as a right-to-life
issue -- only to confront polls showing that the public does not
see it that way.
"How deep is this Congress going to reach into the personal lives
of each and every one of us?" asked Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.),
one of only five Republicans in the House to vote against the
Republican lawmakers and others engaged in the debate say an
internal party dispute over the Schiavo case has ruptured, at least
temporarily, the uneasy alliance between economic and social
conservatives that twice helped President Bush get elected.
"Advocates of using federal power to keep this woman alive need to
seriously study the polling data that's come out on this," said
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who has been
talking to both social and economic conservatives about the
fallout. "I think that a lot of conservative leaders assumed there
was broader support for saying that they wanted to have the federal
government save this woman's life."
Some Republicans said they do not believe the vote to allow a
federal court to examine whether any of Schiavo's constitutional
rights had been violated will become a political issue, especially
since 47 House Democrats voted for the measure, while 53 voted
"It was not a partisan issue. It was one of conscience," said Rep.
Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.), the chief deputy whip. "People will remember
that the majority attempted to address a very difficult situation
and did it with a real seriousness of purpose."
Democrats struggled with their own internal divisions over whether
to join Republicans in urging federal courts to consider the Schiavo
case -- or to oppose it as a dangerous legislative overreach. The
decision of so many Democrats to support Republican action
represented a rare moment of detente between the two otherwise
Even House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), one of the most
partisan politicians in Washington, conceded, "There's been
incredible cooperation by the Democrats and Republicans." Aides in
both parties say a shared concern about the fate of incapacitated
people could lead to bipartisan legislation addressing their rights.
The fracas over congressional involvement has taken many GOP
lawmakers by surprise. Most knew little about the case and were
acting at the direction of their leaders, who armed them with the
simple argument that they just wanted to give Schiavo a final
chance, and that they wanted to err on the side of life. But because
of the rush to act and the insistent approach of the leadership,
Republicans had no debate about whether their vote could be seen as
federal intrusion in a family matter, or as a violation of the
separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches.
Both issues are concerns of many voters responding to polls, and of
some legislators themselves.
Republican leaders knew from the outset they were entering new and
possibly rocky terrain. DeLay said that he told Judiciary Committee
Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) two weeks ago, "We have
to do something for Terri Schiavo," but that the chairman was
reluctant because, as DeLay recounted, "we don't have a precedent
for doing private bills in these matters, and he didn't want to
violate that precedent."
The majority leader's response to Sensenbrenner: "Be creative."
One senior GOP lawmaker involved in the negotiations, who did not
want to speak for the record, said that DeLay, who is fighting
ethics charges on several fronts, faced considerable pressure from
Christian conservative groups to respond to pleas by the parents of
the brain-damaged woman to intervene before her husband, Michael
Schiavo, removed the feeding tube that kept her alive. The lawmaker
said that DeLay "wanted to follow through" but added that many House
Republicans were dubious and suspected that the leader's ethics
problems were a motivating factor.
Republican concerns grew, the senior House GOP lawmaker said, as a
succession of federal judges, some of them conservative appointees,
rejected Congress's entreaty. "A lot of members are saying, 'Why did
you put us through this?' " said the lawmaker, who agreed to recount
the events on the condition that he not be named.
There has been similar grumbling in the Senate, where the Schiavo
effort was led by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a former
transplant surgeon who is retiring in 2006, presumably to run for
president; Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a conservative Catholic who
also may harbor presidential ambitions; and freshman Sen. Mel
Aides to other Republican senators said there was little
discussion of the matter outside that group. "It definitely would
have gone down differently had it actually been considered," a
senior aide to a moderate Republican senator said.
The stakes could be particularly high for Frist. Even as he shores
up support with one crucial presidential primary voting bloc --
Christian conservatives -- he may have repelled another: small-
government conservatives, who are particularly key in the New
Hampshire primary. "A lot of Republicans who vote up here would be
inclined to see this as a personal matter . . . and would be
uncomfortable with what Congress did," said Dante Scala, a political
scientist at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.
One wild card in the debate was the degree to which lawmakers,
including DeLay and Frist, questioned Schiavo's medical condition --
a persistent vegetative state with no hope for recovery, according
to the doctors who examined her. DeLay said of Schiavo, "She talks
and she laughs and she expresses happiness and discomfort," and he
blamed her inability to speak on the fact that "she's not been
afforded any speech therapy -- none!"
In a Senate floor statement March 16, Frist referred to a
videotaped exam he had seen of Schiavo and suggested there could be
questions about her condition. He described her as having "a severe
disability similar to what cerebral palsy might be." Neurologists
and other experts say that Schiavo's facial expressions, captured on
videotapes that her parents are circulating, are nothing more than
involuntary movements. Scans show her cerebral cortex has been
severely damaged, and other tests indicate no normal electrical
activity in her brain.
Aggravating GOP frustrations are disturbing new polls, including a
CBS survey that found that 82 percent of Americans -- including a
whopping 68 percent of people who identify themselves as evangelical
Christians -- think Congress's intervention was wrong.
Democrats, who note that the action is identified with the GOP-led
Congress and the president, hope that the public's negative response
could translate into a more general unease with Republican
rule. "They look out of step," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), a
Clinton White House adviser who runs the House Democrats' campaign
committee. "This Congress is getting involved in things they
shouldn't be getting involved in, and not getting involved in things
they should be."
Republicans are "going to get kicked around a lot," said Larry
Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of
Virginia. On the other hand, he sees a silver lining in the
otherwise miserable polls: The minority that does back congressional
action probably supports it intensely, while the majority that
disagrees "won't remember this woman's name in a few months."
Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.), who represents one of the toughest
districts for Republicans and is exploring a run for governor, flew
back to vote for the Schiavo bill and said he has no regrets.
"If civil rights issues are a federal issue, and I agree they are,
how about the issue of life?" Beauprez asked. "If I'm going to be
the only one standing up at the end of this that said, 'I stood for
life,' I'm happy to do that."