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What Terri's Law cost the Republicans in Congress // Faith and consequences

Published Dec. 18, 2005
Updated Aug. 2, 2006

Each December, the Family Research Council grades Congress on how it voted during the year on important conservative social issues, such as gay marriage and abortion. But this year, the group didn't even bother to score the Senate.

Blame Terri Schiavo.

After the public backlash that followed congressional intervention in Schiavo's end-of-life case in March, conservative social victories were just too few to count.

Moderate Republicans, already uncomfortable with the rightward cant of their congressional leaders, found in Schiavo a new reason to keep their distance. And the Democrats who had helped pass several Republican priorities early this year disappeared, too.

After four years of galloping triumph for the conservative Republican agenda, the rush to pass Schiavo legislation marked a critical turning point in Washington, helping expand fissures in a Republican Party known for discipline, emboldening Democrats and derailing conservative social initiatives that had been expected to win easy approval in Congress this year.

Republicans in Congress and the White House have been forced to scale back spending cuts for education and social programs, new tax cuts for the wealthy and the easing of environmental restrictions.

Republicans hold comfortable majorities in both chambers, and the number of conservative members has climbed in recent elections. But wary of overreaching again, Congress has done little since Schiavo to appease the GOP's evangelical base, delaying constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and allowing prayer in school, as well as new restrictions on abortion.

"The landscape changed," lamented Bruce Fein, a conservative columnist and former Justice Department official in the Reagan administration. "The wish list for the Christian right has been swept away."

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As Easter approached, protesters and TV crews jammed the grounds outside the Pinellas Park hospice where Terri Schiavo lived. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, made a pilgrimage to pray with her family.

Schiavo, 41, had been diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state since 1990, when she suffered cardiac arrest and her brain was starved of oxygen. Michael Schiavo sought a court's permission to remove her feeding tube in 1998, arguing his wife would not have wanted to live that way.

Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, fought him bitterly, but in February it appeared he would finally prevail: A Pinellas County judge ruled that her feeding tube could be disconnected on March 18.

In Washington, Republican leaders and conservative activists were outraged. To some who watched a video of Schiavo shot in her hospice room, it appeared that she could follow a balloon, that she reacted to her mother's voice. That sometimes, she smiled.

How could they let her die?

Terri Schiavo had been pulled into the political realm once before, after a judge allowed her feeding tube to be removed last year. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the Republican-controlled state Legislature rushed through a bill that led to its reinsertion, but that victory was temporary.

Congress was the Schindlers last hope. As the March 18 deadline neared, Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, a Melbourne-area physician, and Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., filed legislation to give federal courts authority to review her case and others like it.

Then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay quickly took charge of the bill in the House. Santorum and Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., took over in the Senate.

The politicians who styled themselves as Schiavo's saviors denounced those who would let her die as evil, as heartless, as killers. Speaking to the influential Family Research Council the day her feeding tube was removed, DeLay framed the battle in terms of a culture war.

"And I'll tell you, ladies and gentlemen, one thing that God has brought to us is Terri Schiavo, to elevate the visibility of what's going on in America," he said. "That Americans would be so barbaric as to pull a feeding tube out of a person that is lucid and starve them to death for two weeks. I mean, in America, that's going to happen if we don't win this fight."

When Congress adjourned for the Easter recess, congressional leaders stayed behind to finalize a bill that would allow the Schindlers to ask the federal courts to review the case. Leaders called the House and Senate back into session on Palm Sunday to pass it.

Through it all, lawmakers from both parties struggled with what to do. Ultimately, many Democrats and some Republicans refused to oppose the bill because, as an aide to Martinez wrote in a memo to senators, they believed Schiavo was a "great political issue."

"This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue," the memo said. "This is a great political issue, because Senator Nelson of Florida has already refused to become a co-sponsor and this is a tough issue for Democrats."

Any senator could have stopped it, but none did, and it passed by voice vote in a near-empty chamber that afternoon. Only Sen. John Warner, R-Va., spoke against it.

At the time, many Democrats were still cowed by the results of the November elections, when it appeared that voters' zeal for religious and moral issues had carried the president to re-election and helped the Republicans gain seats in Congress.

Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, said he felt the pressure when he returned to Washington that day.

"When I sat in the whip's office that Sunday afternoon, what I was told by other Democrats was, "Don't do it, don't object, don't force a debate, because this is a debate about values, and Democrats have a hard time arguing successfully on values issues,' " he recounted.

But he and others did object, forcing the House into a three-hour debate. Just after midnight, the bill passed easily, 203-58.

Forty-seven Democrats voted for it. Just five Republicans opposed it.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, initially planned to vote for the bill. Then she walked onto the House floor and sat next to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward County Democrat who was leading the opposition with Davis.

Brown-Waite was voting no. She thought her political career might be over.

Within days, however, polls showed a jarring disconnect between what Congress and the president had done and what the public thought they should have done. From 70 percent to 82 percent of Americans opposed federal involvement. The Republicans' approval ratings suffered, too.

"It really was the first instance they stumbled," said Ross Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University. "For the first time, their political weakness was exposed. They read the public mood completely wrong."

The federal courts, too, rejected Congress. Schiavo died March 31.

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The Schiavo case is not directly responsible for the misfortunes that have plagued the Bush administration and the Republican majority in Congress for the past eight months.

Turmoil in Iraq, the indictments of Tom DeLay and Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, soaring gas prices and the Bush administration's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina all have played roles, analysts and lawmakers say.

Republicans also disagree about the Schiavo impact. Some conservative leaders, including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and Michael Franc, vice president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation, say it was minimal.

But most acknowledge it exacerbated existing fissures among congressional Republicans and helped Democrats find their backbone.

"It's become one more item on a checklist of grievances that the moderates have developed with respect to their conservative colleagues," Franc said.

It also gave Democrats the courage to challenge congressional leaders more forcefully, members of both parties said. Before Schiavo, Democrats helped pass a number of red-meat Republican priorities, including an energy bill that would have allowed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; a law making it harder to file for bankruptcy; and restrictions on class-action lawsuits.

After Schiavo, Democratic support for most Republican initiatives all but disappeared.

"The Terri Schiavo case literally was the thing that, from that point forward, brought our caucus together and gave us the ability to become more unified," Wasserman Schultz said.

Some Republicans changed, too. Baker, the congressional scholar at Rutgers, said sticking with the party had been essential for most Republican lawmakers throughout the Bush era. After Schiavo, the party leadership - especially DeLay - became a liability for some.

"They can jump ship now," he said.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said Schiavo was one of many factors that have contributed to the public's declining support for the Republican Party. "Was (the Schiavo bill) a mistake? Yes," he said. "I think most Americans agree. There are things the government should stay out of - and that was one of them."

Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut, one of the five Republicans who voted against the Schiavo bill, said it prompted members to question their leaders' judgment and made many worry that the GOP appears too beholden to the party's right wing.

That concern has played out in several ways. Recently, unified Democrats and Republican moderates forced House leaders to soften spending cuts for Medicaid, food stamps and education, and to abandon drilling in the Arctic refuge - despite having passed it before Schiavo.

Moderate Republican and Democrats are stalling tax cuts in the Senate, too.

Meanwhile, the Republican caucus has been shy about addressing social issues, frustrating conservative activists.

"The Schiavo case absolutely made the leadership reluctant to take up controversial social issues," said Paul M. Weyrich, chairman and CEO of the conservative Free Congress Foundation.

There have been a few exceptions - most notably, a House bill (still stuck in the Senate) that would ban taking a minor from a state with a parental consent law to a state without such a law for an abortion.

But conservatives had expected - and the congressional leadership had planned - for many more, including constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, banning the desecration of the U.S. flag, and promoting prayer in school; a "fetal pain" bill, which would require a woman having an abortion to be told a fetus can feel pain; and the Informed Choice Act, which would require women seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound image of their fetus and a description of its physical features.

"Everyone was talking about "values voters' last year. Back then, everyone seemed to realize that values had driven the election. What has the GOP done for values voters this year?" Family Research Council president Tony Perkins said Wednesday in his daily Washington report, broadcast on the group's Web site, www.frc.org.

"We're still waiting for action on marriage. We're waiting for stronger pro-life initiatives."

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., acknowledged that because of Schiavo, "I think there are a lot of members who won't be able to deliver on those issues. They've just got to remember that what's happening with the Democrats is there's a stiffening resistance on these issues not to give us any help."

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As the public's displeasure with the Schiavo bill became clear, Congress quickly scrapped proposals to allow the federal courts to review almost any case where life support would be withdrawn. And though they once described the Schiavo bill as the top moral issue facing Congress and the nation, Frist, Santorum, DeLay and Weldon all declined interview requests to discuss it now.

A spokeswoman for Martinez, who filed the Senate bill, said he wouldn't comment, either. Reached in person in Tampa recently, Martinez rolled his eyes, then said he stands by his actions. He downplayed Schiavo's significance.

"It was an isolated event," he said. "It happened. It's over, and we move on."

Times staff writers Janet Zink and Bill Adair contributed to this report.

SCHIAVO BILL TIMELINE

FEB. 25: Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Richard Greer rules that Michael Schiavo can have his wife's feeding tube removed on March 18.

MARCH 8: Rep. Dave Weldon and Sen. Mel Martinez file bill.

MARCH 16: House passes Schiavo Bill No. 1. Senate rejects it.

MARCH 17: Senate passes its version of Schiavo Bill. House rejects it.

MARCH 18: Feeding tube removed.

MARCH 20: Senate, House negotiators reach agreement. Senate passes by unanimous consent.

MARCH 21: House passes Schiavo bill, 203-58.

MARCH 24: U.S. Supreme Court declines to intervene.

MARCH 31: Terri Schiavo dies. Sen. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, blames courts, warns consequences for jurists. "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today," he says.

REP. TOM DELAY, THEN-HOUSE Majority Leader

March 18, the day Schiavo's feeding tube was removed

"And I'll tell you, ladies and gentlemen, one thing that God has brought to us is Terri Schiavo, to elevate the visibility of what's going on in America. That Americans would be so barbaric as to pull a feeding tube out of a person that is lucid and starve them to death for two weeks - I mean, in America that's going to happen if we don't win this fight."

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