News Intelligence Analysis
From the New York Times
April 1, 2005
Even Death Does Not Quiet Harsh Political Fight
DeLay Threatens Judges
By CARL HULSE and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
WASHINGTON, March 31 - The political battle over Terri Schiavo erupted anew on Thursday as conservatives portrayed her death as the result of an unaccountable judiciary and Representative Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, threatened retribution against the judges who refused to intercede in the case.
"The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today," said Mr. DeLay, who was instrumental in pushing emergency legislation that gave the federal courts jurisdiction over Ms. Schiavo's care, only to see them decline to order her feeding tube restored. Saying that the courts "thumbed their nose at Congress and the president," Mr. DeLay, of Texas, suggested Congress was exploring responses and declined to rule out the possibility of Congressional impeachment of the judges involved.
Democrats, who had for the most part stayed on the political sidelines as Republicans pushed the Schiavo cause, immediately seized on Mr. DeLay's remarks.
"Mr. DeLay's comments today were irresponsible and reprehensible," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, who said he was uncertain what Mr. DeLay's intent was. "But at a time when emotions are running high, Mr. DeLay needs to make clear that he is not advocating violence against anyone. People in this case have already had their lives threatened."
As the vigil in Florida ended for Ms. Schiavo, who was severely brain-damaged, conservatives said the refusal of the federal courts to step in underscored the need for Senate Republicans to end the ability of the Democratic minority to filibuster President Bush's judicial nominees.
Dr. James C. Dobson, the founder of the evangelical group Focus on the Family, said the judges who would not stop the removal of Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube were "guilty not only of judicial malfeasance - but of the cold-blooded, cold-hearted extermination of an innocent human life."
Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, said: "It is a tragic, unfortunate but avoidable event that should awaken Americans to the problem of the courts. It is no longer theoretical. It is life or death."
While Mr. DeLay and others renewed the combative tone they had used to advance the Schiavo legislation, others couched their responses. Representative F. James Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin and a chief advocate for the legislation, pointed out that the measure had passed in a "bipartisan fashion." Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader and another central figure in the Congressional action, directed his comments to Ms. Schiavo's family "and all those involved in this regrettable loss of life."
In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush appeared to seek a respite from the political battles over Ms. Schiavo.
"There's a lot of raw emotion still, and it may be appropriate to wait" before passing laws to address similar cases, Governor Bush said. "The answer to this is that we don't count on government to be the arbiter, or count on the courts to do that. This is the responsibility of the people we love, to talk to about this way in advance of it happening."
Democrats and other critics of the Republicans, bolstered by polls that consistently showed overwhelming public opposition to the Congressional role, argued that the willingness of the Republican-led Congress to intervene in one family's court battle would rally the opposition.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has worked for abortion rights groups, said some Americans had been skeptical that Republicans could succeed in overturning court precedents about abortion rights.
"Now it is like, oh yeah, the guys can step in from the highest level," Ms. Lake said. "It makes the threat seem a lot more viable."
Robert Borosage, the president of the liberal Institute for America's Future, said, "There is no question it exposed the conservative leadership of the Congress at its worst."
But, many social conservatives dismissed the polls as biased, saying most questions presupposed that Ms. Schiavo could never recover - the diagnosis of some of her doctors that her parents have disputed.
"The way they are worded, I would have been put down as being against some of the things I am for," said Dr. Richard Land, president of the ethics and religious liberty commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Dr. Land painted Democratic critics of Congress's efforts as supporters of Ms. Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, who said that she would have wanted to die.
"If they want to be vigorous defenders of Michael Schiavo and his right to have his wife killed by starving and dehydration, my words to them are 'Go ahead, be Michael's defenders' - and I wish on each of them a son-in-law like Michael Schiavo," Dr. Land said.
Strategists, party leaders and pollsters doubted the issue would carry over into the next election. "I don't see it as any transformative moment for voters here," said G. Terry Madonna, an independent pollster and a professor of public policy at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, which has a larger percentage of Catholic voters than most states.
Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said the underlying political lesson might be that Americans are deeply conflicted about such intensely personal issues as when to terminate medical care.
"Public attitudes on life are a lot more complex than the ideologues would have you believe," Mr. Kohut said. He also said that his polling suggested some dissatisfaction among Democratic voters with their party's leadership for not mounting stronger resistance to the Schiavo legislation.
Congressional Democrats who opposed the action were largely quiet on Thursday. Representatives Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Jim Davis of Florida, two who led the opposition on the House floor to Congressional intervention, declined to talk about the politics of the issue, saying it was a day of mourning.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, said in a statement that she believed "very strongly that the federal government should not be imposing its will in situations better left to individuals, families and the states."
Burke Balch, an official of the Right to Life Committee, said he did not think the case had much to do with larger arguments about abortion, judicial nominations or partisan overreaching. The striking aspect of the debate, Mr. Balch said, was the cooperation of disabled groups, abortion rights groups, Democrats and Republicans who disagree on those broader matters but shared a concern for incapacitated patients.
"The reality is that there may be a possibility of greater cooperation on these treatment-related issues," he said.
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