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WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives this morning passed a bill that could save Terri Schiavo’s life by sending it to a federal court for review to determine whether her feeding tube should be reinserted.
President Bush signed it into law moments later.
“In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life,” Bush said in a statement.
The emergency House vote of 203-58 came at 12:30 a.m. following a voice vote in the U.S. Senate. House Democrats stalled the vote forcing lawmakers into an emergency late-night session.
The president rushed back from his Texas ranch to sign the measure that could trigger a federal court review and a quick restoration of feeding tubes needed to keep the brain-injured Florida woman alive.
“We are very very thankful to have crossed this bridge,” Suzanne Vitadamo, Terri’s sister, told reporters following the vote. “We are hopeful, we are very hopeful, that the federal courts will follow the will of Congress and save my sister’s life.”
Republican supporters said the “Palm Sunday Compromise” would protect the constitutional rights of a disabled person, and denied suggestions that they viewed the case as an opportunity to shore up support among religious conservatives ahead of next year’s elections.
But Rep. Jim Davis, D-Fla., said the congressional action was “a clear threat to our democracy.” Congress, he said, was ignoring the constitutional separation of power and “is on the verge of telling states, courts, judges and juries that their opinions, deliberations and decisions do not matter.”
“We ought to err on the side of life in a case like this,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. Asked about a bill that would cover a single person, he said, “I think most people recognize that this case involves some extraordinary circumstances.”
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said the federal district court in Florida, which is open 24 hours a day, had already been informed that a petition would be filed as soon as the president signs the measure – with the presumption a judge will order that the tube be replaced.
“Time is not on Terri Schiavo’s side,” DeLay said. “The few remaining objecting House Democrats have so far cost Mrs. Schiavo two meals already today.”
Even though the legislation would pave an avenue for federal jurisdiction in the legal case, there was no way to determine in advance how or when a judge would rule — or even which judge would be assigned the case by lottery.
Lawmakers who left Washington Friday for the two-week Easter recess had to make abrupt changes in plans, backtracking for a dramatic and politically contentious vote.
In a special session Sunday afternoon, Democrats refused to allow the bill to be passed without a roll-call vote.
The delay on Capitol Hill was blasted by Schiavo’s parents, who spoke with reporters outside their daughter’s hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla. “There are some congressmen that are trying to stop this bill,” said Terri’s mother, Mary Schindler. “Please don’t use my daughter’s suffering for your own personal agenda.”
Among those in Congress fighting against restoration of the feeding tube is Rep. Bob Wexler, D-Florida. “It is not the place of Congress, at the 11th hour, in the most effusive fashion, to undermine the Florida court system, particularly given the fact that it has been seven years and 19 judges who have participated,” Wexler said.
“We are seeing, sadly, the manifestation of a constitutional crisis,” said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. “You will have hundreds of members of Congress making a medical decision about which we know nothing.”
Schiavo, 41, collapsed under disputed circumstances Feb. 25, 1990, suffering severe brain damage when her heart stopped momentarily. Her husband, Michael Schiavo, attributes the collapse to an eating disorder, but the Schindlers strongly suspect he tried to strangle her.
The Schindlers have pleaded with Michael Schiavo to divorce their daughter, pointing out his live-in relationship with another woman, with whom he has two children.
“It’s not about me, it’s not about Congress, it’s about Terri,” Michael Schiavo said Friday on CNN’s “Larry King Live” program.
“I want you all to think about going through a judicial process to have your own wishes granted and then the Congress and the government walking in on that because of their personal views. That’s absurd.”
Michael Schiavo has maintained Terri had no desire to live under her current medical conditions, though there was no written corroboration of that.
“As millions of Americans observe the beginning of Holy Week this Palm Sunday we are reminded that every life has purpose and none is without meaning,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a leader in crafting the bill.
The House has 232 Republicans, 202 Democrats and one independent.
The legislation would give Schiavo’s parents the right to file suit in federal court over the withdrawal of food and medical treatment needed to sustain the life of their daughter.
It says the court, after determining the merits of the suit, “shall issue such declaratory and injunctive relief as may be necessary to protect the rights” of the woman. Injunctive relief in this case could mean the reinserting of feeding tubes.
“It gives Terri Schiavo another chance,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said after the late-afternoon voice vote in a near-empty Senate chamber. “It guarantees a process to help Terri, but does not guarantee a particular outcome.”
Frist also noted that the bill, responding to some Democratic objections, does not affect state assisted suicide laws or serve as a precedent for future legislation.
The White House made arrangements for Bush to sign the measure at any hour, although without fanfare.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said members scattered across the globe were being summoned back to Washington by aides to House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
The Democratic whip, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said his office was informing members of the vote and not discouraging them from returning to the capital. But he said the party was not counting votes and was telling members to vote their conscience on the issue.
House and Senate committees at the end of the week issued subpoenas seeking to force the continuation of treatment, but that move was rejected by a Florida court.
Republicans distanced themselves from a memo suggesting GOP lawmakers could use the case to appeal to Christian conservative voters and to force Democrats into a difficult vote. DeLay said he and other GOP leaders hadn’t seen the memo and that he would fire any staffer who wrote such a document.