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Originally published Saturday, March 19, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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GOP maneuver in Schiavo case stirs controversy

An extraordinary, 11th-hour maneuver by congressional Republicans to intervene in the Terri Schiavo saga had no legal precedent and was...

The Baltimore Sun

An extraordinary, 11th-hour maneuver by congressional Republicans to intervene in the Terri Schiavo saga had no legal precedent and was unlikely to withstand a court challenge, analysts said yesterday.

A House committee issued subpoenas early yesterday demanding the appearance of Schiavo, her husband and her medical caregivers at a hearing this month. They were attempting to block the court-ordered removal of Schiavo's feeding tube by invoking a federal law that prohibits harming a congressional witness.

Schiavo's feeding tube was removed anyway after a Florida judge ruled there was "no cogent reason" why Congress should invalidate years of court rulings. The Florida Supreme Court later denied a House petition for relief.

Congressional leaders who long have pushed seemingly contradictory positions on states' rights and respect of marriage said they would keep fighting in Schiavo's case, with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas saying "the sanctity of life overshadows the sanctity of marriage." The aggressive actions were praised by conservative activists.

But others, including Democrats and outside congressional scholars, said Republicans had overstepped their authority and could risk political backlash. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted March 10-13, an overwhelming majority of the 1,001 adults polled — 87 percent — said they would not want to be kept alive if they were in Schiavo's condition.

"This is really pushing it. I haven't seen anything like it before," said Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress with the nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute. "If I were anybody down in Florida facing a congressional subpoena ... I would say: Go ahead, make my day. Tell me what a Congress that talks all the time about federalism is doing intervening in a state process where all the legal steps have been followed meticulously."

In Washington, Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee that issued the subpoenas, called the Republicans' maneuver a "flagrant abuse of power" and said the subpoenas would be unenforceable.

"Congress is turning the Schiavo family's personal tragedy into national political farce," Waxman said in a statement. "The process was a perversion of democracy."

Congressional committees do have broad investigatory powers. But Ornstein and Gary Jacobson, a political-science professor who studies Congress at the University of California, San Diego, said there was no precedent for the Senate and House to intervene in a single individual's medical case. Both said there could be fallout for Republican lawmakers.

"I think the [social conservative] base will like it and everybody else will feel uncomfortable about it," Jacobson said.

Conservative groups did applaud. Wendy Wright, the senior policy director for the conservative policy group Concerned Women for America, said her group was "incredibly grateful for the swift and responsive action taken by the senators and congressmen who have placed compassion above politics."

"These are extraordinary actions — unparalleled in history — driven by a desire to save an innocent woman's life," she said.

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The House subpoenas, and a less formal request for testimony from Schiavo by a Senate committee, came a day after Congress had adjourned for a two-week recess without reaching agreement on legislation that could have given federal courts jurisdiction in the lengthy fight over Schiavo's life.

In unrecorded voice votes, the House and Senate voted this week to let U.S. courts take Schiavo's case from the Florida courts. The House bill would have required federal courts to review cases involving "incapacitated" people. The narrower Senate bill would have applied only to Schiavo, and would not have required a federal court to review her case.

The two proposals could not be reconciled, though, because the House adjourned Thursday night about an hour before the Senate bill cleared.

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