WASHINGTON - Congressional leaders said yesterday that they had reached agreement on legislation that would force the Terri Schiavo case into federal court - a move aimed at reinserting the brain-damaged woman's feeding tube while her fate is considered.
The House and Senate could vote as early as this afternoon, although procedural hang-ups might postpone that until tomorrow. Only a handful of members from each chamber are expected when the House convenes at 1 p.m. to consider the hastily written compromise, reached after the two chambers failed to agree last week. If the House can pass it, the Senate is expected to follow suit almost immediately.
"It's been more than 24 hours since Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was removed," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said during a brief session yesterday. "Under the legislation that we will soon consider, Terri Schiavo will have another chance."
Last month, a state judge in Florida granted the request of Terri Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, to remove the tube and let her die. Schiavo's feeding tube was disconnected Friday afternoon, despite congressional subpoenas and last-ditch legal appeals from her parents.
Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, and Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, said that if the legislation passes, they expect that any federal judge would immediately order Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted so the review could be done.
"It would make no sense to conduct all these proceedings if the issue at hand would be a moot issue," Martinez said.
Schiavo, 41, will die within two weeks unless the tube that gives her food and water is reinserted, as has happened twice during the nearly seven-year fight over her fate. Schiavo's parents are trying to stop Michael Schiavo from fulfilling what he maintains were his wife's wishes.
She has been in what doctors call a persistent vegetative state since her heart stopped briefly 15 years ago, depriving her brain of oxygen and severely damaging it. Terri Schiavo does not have a formal living will, but her husband says she expressed a desire not to be kept alive artificially.
Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, say their daughter wants to live and could be helped by rehabilitation. They have fought the removal of the feeding tube and tried to persuade Michael Schiavo to surrender responsibility for Terri Schiavo's care to them.
The bill being considered in Congress would grant jurisdiction to a federal court to do a completely fresh review of the Schiavo case. In the past, federal courts -including the U.S. Supreme Court - have declined to get involved.
"It's a trial anew," said Martinez, one of the sponsors of the bill. "The federal court begins at Day 1."
The bill, which would not set a precedent for future cases, stipulates that Congress should take up the broader issue of situations like Terri Schiavo's later in the session.
At a news conference to announce the compromise, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said he didn't know whether a federal court review would produce a different outcome.
"And that's not the point. The point is that Terri Schiavo should have the opportunity. We should investigate every avenue before we take the life of a living human being, and that's the very least we can do for her," he said. "And certainly it's the very least we can do for her than to take it from just a few people that have decided whether she lives or dies."
The House passed a version of the bill late Wednesday night. The Senate approved a different version the next day, but the House went home for the planned Easter recess without considering it.
At least one House member, Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida, expressed outrage at the attempts by his colleagues to get involved in the case. Wexler said he plans to object to the effort, expected today, to pass the bill through the House by unanimous consent - essentially, an agreement by all the members. Without that, House leaders would have to hold on to the bill until after midnight tomorrow.
"The tragic and complicated matter is only made more difficult with congressional intervention," said Wexler, a Democrat from South Florida. "While my heart goes out to Ms. Schiavo and all members of her family, I find it unconscionable that Congress has decided to continue to intercede in spite of the clear action of Florida courts and the unequivocal precedent of law, which has supported the right of Ms. Schiavo's husband to make these heart-wrenching decisions as her legal guardian."
If a vote is delayed, leaders will try to pass it by voice vote tomorrow. But if any member calls for a roll call vote, the chamber needs at least 218 members present. That could take time, since most lawmakers planned to spend this week in their districts.
In Florida, police arrested four demonstrators, including right-wing leader James Gordon "Bo" Gritz, who tried to enter the Pinellas Park hospice where Schiavo lives, trying to bring bread and water for her.
Randall Terry, an anti-abortion activist who has become a spokesman for the Schindler family, said a coalition of pro-family groups is sending 2 million e-mails to supporters, asking them to "beg" Congress to help keep Terri Schiavo alive.
Michael Schiavo left his wife's deathbed to make rare TV appearances in hopes of mobilizing the majority of Americans who polls show would reject artificial life support if they were Terri.
"They're stepping into my personal life, and they're getting in the middle of something they know nothing about," he told CNN yesterday.
Tamara Lytle, Maya Bell and Etan Horowitz of the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, contributed to this article.