‘Grotesque’ or life-saving drama at the Capitol?

Congress Convenes To Debate Terri Schiavo Case
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay speaks as Whip Roy Blunt listens during a news conference at the Capitol Sunday.Alex Wong / Getty Images
/ Source: msnbc.com

In what some House Democrats assailed as “a grotesque session of Congress” and “the manifestation of a constitutional crisis,” Republican leaders convened rare Sunday sessions of both the House and Senate to try to keep Terri Schiavo alive.

A late winter weekend on Capitol Hill has rarely seen a spectacle like the one which unfolded over the weekend.

The drama climaxed early Monday morning with House passage of the bill intended to save Schiavo’s life by ordering a new review of her case by a federal judge. The bill covers only her case, not those of other similarly incapacitated people.

On the roll call vote, 156 Republicans and 47 Democrats voted for the bill, while five Republicans and 53 Democrats voted against it. Another 174 members did not vote.

Many of the Democrats who voted for the bill were the same ones, mostly from the South and Midwest, who regularly vote for measures to restrict abortion, such as Reps. Sanford Bishop of Georgia, Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota and John Tanner of Tennessee.

President Bush was woken up at 1:11 a.m. to sign the legislation opening the way for a lawyer for Schiavo's parents to ask a judge to prolong her life.

Michael Schiavo, Terri Schiavo’s husband, wants to prevent the reinsertion of the feeding tube, which was removed on Friday after a lengthy court battle.

Not about who's going to win
While lawmakers sought to frame the debate in terms of moral and constitutional principles, reporters on Capitol Hill kept peppering legislators with questions about political motives and whether the Democrats or the Republicans would be the winners in this drama.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who pushed the Senate to pass legislation intended to save Schiavo’s life, has presidential ambitions and has already visited New Hampshire, where the first GOP primary will be held in 2008.

A frustrated Rep. Jim Davis, D- Fla., an opponent of Frist’s bill, and himself a gubernatorial candidate in next year’s election, scolded one reporter for asking about political motives. “This is not about who’s going to win between Democrats and Republicans,” Davis said at a Sunday press conference.

In spite of Davis, political attacks echoed all around the Capitol building.

Rep. Rush Holt, D- N.J., who decried Sunday’s session as “grotesque,” took a shot at Rep. Dave Weldon, R- Fla., and at Frist, both of whom are doctors, neither of whom has examined Schiavo, but both of whom have expressed their opinion that Schiavo is not in a persistent vegetative state.

“They question the medical testimony,” Holt huffed. “I wouldn’t presume to say what state medical licensing boards should do with such doctors, but I can tell you most Americans would not want to go to those doctors if that is the way they practice medicine.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D- Fla., who opposed the Schiavo bill, blasted GOP leaders as “particularly hypocritical” because they extol the sanctity of marriage and yet “insert themselves in between a husband and a wife.”

When a reporter queried House Majority Leader Tom DeLay Saturday about that point, he replied, “The sanctity of life overshadows the sanctity of marriage. I don’t know what transpired between Terri and her husband. All I know is Terri is alive…. Unless she has specifically written instructions in her hand, with her signature, I don’t care what her husband says.”

A mix of motives
Rep. Barney Frank, D- Mass., who joined Davis and other House Democrats at a press conference denouncing the bill as unwise and unconstitutional, passed up a chance to snipe at DeLay.

Instead Frank waxed philosophical, saying of GOP leaders’ actions and motives, “It is a mix, as anything elected officials do, of genuine feelings and politics, and that’s not saying that they’re bad.”

Frist issued a press release denying any political motive.

Referring to a memorandum reportedly passed around to Republican senators that called the Schiavo case “a great political issue" which could appeal to Christian conservative voters, Frist said, “I have never seen the memo” and “I condemn the content of the memo.” 

Frank, the realist, told reporters that political considerations “are inevitable in anything we do.” He added, “I think there’s a mix of motives. There are people who believe this (that Schiavo should be kept alive) very sincerely.”

But he called the GOP leaders “people (who) do not accept any limitations on enacting whatever they believe.”

Frank’s realism raised a few questions: if political motives are inevitable, is there a point at which they appear cynical and become too transparent to voters? If Frist were trying to advance his presidential ambitions, would an overly calculated legislative maneuver be obvious to voters and thus hurt, not help him? And if Frist is a smart enough politician to be majority leader, he knows all this already, doesn’t he?

While Davis, Frank and other Democrats denounced the bill, a couple of Democrats joined forces with DeLay and Frist.

On Saturday Rep. James Oberstar, D- Minn., appeared with DeLay in the House radio-TV gallery to urge the bill’s passage. Over in the Senate gallery, Sen. Tom Harkin, D- Iowa, stood side by side with Sen. Mel Martinez, R- Fla., and Sen. Rick Santorum, R- Pa., to endorse the bill.

Hearings for disabled people
Harkin, a longtime champion of disabled people, had his own plans in mind. He sketched a potentially large expansion of federal court powers to intervene when disabled people can’t say whether they want life-sustaining treatment continued.

“There are a lot of people in the shadows, all over this country, who are incapacitated because of a disabilities and many times there’s no one to speak for them and it’s hard to determine what their wishes are,” Harkin said. He urged Congress, once it passes the Schiavo relief bill, to enact another law requiring federal court hearings where there is a dispute over ending life-sustaining measures.

“In all my work over 25 years with disabilities I just had not thought about this,” Harkin remarked. “But the more I looked at Schiavo case, the more I thought, ‘wait a minute, there are a lot of people in similar situations.’”

With political arguments flying back and forth, it was not clear how much was hyperbole and whether consistency was too much to hope for.

For example, Davis charged that, “there are a lot of Floridians and people around the country who are terribly worried that their living will is not going to hold up” due to congressional intervention in the wake of the Schiavo case.

Rep. Don Manzullo, R- Ill., a supporter of the bill, disputed that charge in the second of two dueling press conferences. “A written living will is not under attack,” Manzullo said.

The Democrats, themselves not always the champions of limited government, denounced Republicans for violating that principle.

Violation of limited government?
The bill was, said Frank, “the manifestation of a constitutional crisis.”

Congress was doing what only courts should do, Frank said. DeLay and other Republicans had rejected “a fundamental precept of American government, that is, a limited government.”

He pointed to a provision of the bill which said nothing in it would be a precedent for future legislation or private relief bills.

“Well, if it’s the right thing to do, why not?” asked Frank, arguing if the GOP majority was going to intervene in the Schiavo case, it was inconsistent not to do so in comparable cases.

“Of course, no one believes we’re only going to do this once,” he said.