Despite seeing only videotapes of Terri Schiavo, lawmakers such as DeLay have opined that she is not in a "persistent vegetative state," as the courts have consistently found. They say she can talk, that her condition could improve if she had physical therapy, and that her husband has shirked his duty as her guardian by trying to end her life - something, Michael Schiavo maintains, that his wife would have wanted.

"We in the Senate recognize that it is extraordinary that we act," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said. "But these are extraordinary circumstances that center on the most fundamental of human values - the sanctity of human life."

But opponents of the legislation said it goes against several principles normally espoused by Republicans, including state sovereignty, a limited federal government and the sanctity of marriage.

"I think we are seeing, sadly, the manifestation of a constitutional crisis," said Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat. "We have people in power today in both houses and in the White House who simply reject what has always been the fundamental precept of American government; namely that it's a limited government. And there have been times when I've chafed at those limits.

"But we now have people who don't just chafe at the limits, they totally disregard them."

Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat who opposes the bill, said, "It is not the place of Congress - at the 11th hour and in the most abusive fashion - to undermine the Florida court system."

But supporters said that because the bill is essentially a personal piece of legislation for Terri Schiavo and deals only with jurisdiction, not the outcome, it should pass constitutional muster.

The House convened briefly yesterday at 1 p.m. yesterday, with only a handful of lawmakers present. Republican leaders had hoped to push the bill through quickly, but several Democrats made it clear they would not allow the bill to sail through.

When the Senate passed the bill late in the afternoon, only three senators - Frist, Mel Martinez of Florida and Virginia's John W. Warner - were in the chamber, all of them Republicans.

Terri Schiavo's brother, Bobby Schindler, continued his campaign to lobby lawmakers to help his sister. He arrived in Washington on Tuesday, and spoke yesterday with opponents of the bill - including Democratic Reps. James P. Moran Jr. of Virginia and Jim Davis of Florida.

Proponents of the bill said the sudden interest of Congress has nothing to do with politics, or efforts by Republicans to appeal to Christian conservatives, for whom right-to-life issues are paramount.

"This is not a political issue - this is life and death," DeLay said.

But Davis, whose Tampa-area district is in the same part of the state as the Pinellas Park hospice where Terri Schiavo lives, said Congress is clearly overstepping its authority.

"The United States Congress is on the verge of telling states and courts that their decisions and rules do not matter," he said.

Rep. Dave Weldon, a Florida Republican, a doctor, and one of the early sponsors of the Terri Schiavo legislation, mused yesterday about the competing opinions and ideas caught up in the debate. He conceded that it was unusual for lawmakers to diagnose by videotape but said he was convinced that Congress was doing the right thing.

Wire services contributed to this article.