WASHINGTON — With the clock running down on how much longer Terri Schiavo can remain alive, congressional leaders Saturday announced an unprecedented agreement that would allow Schiavo's parents to petition the federal courts to have a feeding tube replaced for their brain-damaged daughter.
The agreement, which involves emergency weekend sessions of the House and Senate, is the first time Congress has intervened directly in an individual right-to-die case.
The announcement came in dramatic fashion, trumpeted by conservative Republican leaders who persuaded Democrats to agree to the measure as long as it pertained only to the 41-year-old Florida woman and did not open the way for moving other such emotionally charged cases into the federal courts.
The White House announced Saturday night that President Bush would fly to Washington from his Texas ranch today to be able to sign the emergency legislation. Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the president was standing with all those working to save Schiavo's life.
Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, have fought to keep her on life support, even to the point of asking her husband to relinquish to them his position as her legal guardian. Michael Schiavo has maintained that his wife did not wish to be kept alive through artificial means. The Schindlers say their daughter has been misdiagnosed and could improve with therapy.
Outside the nursing facility in Florida where Schiavo is being cared for, her mother pleaded earlier Saturday for lawmakers and the president to intervene. "Please, please, please save my little girl," she said. A vigil was kept at the hospice in Pinellas Park; three people were arrested when they tried to enter the facility.
Michael Schiavo, who had sought to have her feeding tube removed, said that Congress was "getting into something they know nothing about."
"And it's sad," he said. "If they can do it to me, they can do it to everyone in this country."
Terri Schiavo's case has become a cause celebre for evangelical Christians, who have opposed efforts by her husband to end the medical measures that have kept her alive for the past 15 years. Schiavo is in a vegetative state after suffering severe neurological damage when a chemical imbalance caused her to stop breathing. She is able breathe on her own but cannot speak or eat.
Schiavo's case, which raises the difficult issues of assisted suicide and right to life, has been championed by conservatives and evangelical Christians, who turned to Republicans in Congress for help after a Florida court ordered the feeding tube removed. Democrats kept a low profile on the issue, but some cooperated with GOP leaders in the back-stage negotiations this weekend.
The Democrats agreed to allow the Republicans to move forward with a series of elaborate and unusual parliamentary maneuvers, bringing action on the narrowly drawn legislation.
The Senate, meeting Saturday evening, passed a special adjournment resolution that opened the way for the House and Senate to meet in emergency session today to take up legislation that would allow federal courts to consider accepting jurisdiction in the case. Until now, it has been in the hands of Florida state courts, which have supported the arguments of Schiavo's husband.
If a federal judge should decide to accept the case, a court order would presumably be issued to reinstall the feeding tube while the matter was under consideration.
The House is poised to consider the measure at 1 p.m. today under a unanimous consent rule. If that fails, it would take up the measure again at 12:01 a.m. Monday by suspending the House's regular calendar and voting on the measure by voice acclamation, Republican leaders said.
The Senate would act soon afterward, sending the measure to the president for his signature.
Few members of Congress are likely to be on hand for these votes, since most have begun Easter recess. But in this case, only a majority of members present is needed for approval.
The fast-moving legislative timetable may raise the curtain on an equally dramatic legal gambit.
Schiavo's parents would presumably turn to the U.S. Court for the Middle District of Florida and ask a federal judge to keep their daughter alive against her husband's wishes.
Assuming they file the petition sometime Monday, Schiavo -- who is physically incapable of feeding herself or accepting food by mouth -- already would have gone three days without sustenance. Medical experts say a human generally can live about seven days without fluids.
Given the high emotions aroused by the case, any legal action by the parents in federal court would almost certainly be challenged by Schiavo's husband. The result could be legal skirmishes and appeals that eventually lead to the U.S. Supreme Court.