For Congress, a quiet retreat from Schiavo

WASHINGTON - After rushing headlong into the emotional fray over the life of a brain-damaged Florida woman just a week ago, political leaders reacted to the apparent end of the wrenching saga with another near-unanimous position - silence.

For Republicans who led the frenzied effort to help prolong the life of Terri Schiavo, there was good reason by week's end to quietly pull back. Their actions had been slapped down by the courts and scorned by the public, and new opinion polls showed slipping approval rates for Congress and the president.

A cause that might once have seemed to have little political downside had turned into a no-win issue. Political observers said the unanimity was telling, with one poll showing that 82 percent of Americans thought Congress should have stayed out of the Schiavo case and 75 percent saying government should keep out of sensitive end-of-life issues more broadly.

"When you get 82 percent saying they think Congress did the wrong thing, that's everyone," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

As the agonizing story of Terri Schiavo seemed to enter its final chapter Easter weekend, its political fallout threatened to stretch over already bitter debates on judicial nominees and, possibly, the 2006 midterm elections.

Political analysts said it pointed to the dangers for both parties that can come with attempts to court a single, narrow base of support - in this case, the so-called "values voters" who have drawn increased attention since they were credited with helping President Bush secure a second term in the November elections.

"This is a real lesson for everybody. We oversimplify not just issues, but people," said Larry J. Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "We put them in boxes and we call them fundamentalist Christians, and that means they are automatons who respond like Pavlov's dog, and it's not true. It's not true for liberals, it's not true for conservatives."

As the legal and political efforts to prolong Schiavo's life unfolded at breakneck speed last week, opinion polls reflected that complexity of thought.

The CBS News poll that reported 82 percent of all Americans wanted the government out of the case showed that the sentiment cut across religions as well as among conservatives and liberals.

Moderate conservatives balked at the government intervention into one family's ordeal and questioned apparent contradictions with the GOP's long-held positions on state's rights, respect of marriage and mistrust of judicial activism.

"We're against activist courts, and yet we want the federal courts to be quite active on this issue," Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, said in an appearance on MSNBC's Hardball. "It's perplexing."

Many religious conservatives also voiced concerns. More than two-thirds of adults who described themselves as evangelicals and conservatives said they disapproved of the intervention by Congress and President Bush, according to the CBS poll.

Even among those who welcomed the government's actions, there were angry voices. Some activists complained that politicians had not gone far enough. Longtime anti-abortion activist Randall Terry, rallying supporters outside the Florida hospice caring for Schiavo, warned politicians late in the week there would be "Hell to pay" if they did not take additional steps to intervene.

"You can bet there will be people who just might lose their jobs after this is over," said Terry, who founded the group Operation Rescue and who has been coordinating protest efforts on behalf of Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler.

Criticism for Democrats

Republicans appeared to bear the brunt of the public criticism, but it was not much better for Democrats.

Still struggling to figure out how to appeal to religious conservatives since their defeats last November, Democrats put up little fight last weekend when GOP leaders rushed through emergency legislation that allowed the federal courts to review Schiavo's case - angering their supporters.

In a rebuke to Senate Democrats, Florida lawyer George Felos, who has represented Schiavo's husband and guardian, Michael Schiavo, said that if Democrats did not stand up to Republican efforts to intervene, they "deserved to be the minority party, and the dwindling minority party."

"Honestly, one of the only advantages to being out of power is that, generally speaking, anger is directed at those who have the power. And whatever unhappiness exists for the out-of-power party, it tends to dissipate pretty rapidly," said the University of Virginia's Sabato.

The Democrats, he added, are "more or less bystanders - which, of course, is the criticism. It's a great object lesson in cowardice among politicians. There's no question that most Democrats in Congress, and outside Congress, thought this was foolish. But they were too afraid to speak up."

The personal nature of the debate was reflected by many of the Democrats who voted for the bill, including Rep. Albert R. Wynn, who represents Prince George's County. Wynn said he disagreed with the decision to bring the case to Congress but said he followed his conscience, not his party affiliation.

"I believe you have to look at the facts of each case, of each legislative measure, and I don't think you can extrapolate a long-term policy on this from the question of right to life," Wynn said. "I'm pro-choice, but in this instance I voted to preserve life because of the facts of this particular legislation."

The Schiavo saga could insert new bitterness into already existing partisan fights, including the bruising Senate standoff over judicial nominations and a move by Republicans to shift more issues from the state courts to the federal system.

Again, Republicans could face difficult questions. The GOP leadership has long railed against what it has termed "judicial activism" in the state courts, where they have been unhappy with rulings such as those allowing gay marriage. In the Schiavo case, however, Republican leaders appeared to be railing against judges who did not act as they wished.

House Majority Leader Tom Delay, a Texas Republican who was among the most visible politicians as Congress rushed to play a role in the Schiavo case, criticized midweek a federal judge's refusal to order Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted.

Delay said the ruling by U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore was "at odds with both the clear intent of Congress and the constitutional rights of a helpless young woman."

Broad disapproval

Public sentiment went the other way. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, 52 percent of adults said they agreed with the federal judge's decision. In the CBS News poll from a day earlier, 66 percent of adults said the feeding tube should not be reinserted.

As the polls reflected the public's broad disapproval, the tone of Washington politicians took a sharp turn.

After racing to Washington to sign the emergency legislation Monday morning, President Bush returned to his ranch in Texas where he said little about the case at the end of the week. Polls, meanwhile, showed his job-approval rating had dropped to 45 percent, the lowest of his presidency, amid his intervention in the Schiavo case, concerns about the economy and his push to change the Social Security system.

Congress also took a hit. A fresh poll from the Pew Research Center showed just 39 percent of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing, its lowest rating in years.

Late last week, the House Government Reform Committee, which took the unprecedented step of issuing subpoenas for Terri and Michael Schiavo to appear at a hearing, quietly postponed its meeting. A similar panel on the Senate side also shelved its plans.

By late in the week, even Sen. Mel Martinez, the Florida Republican who helped push the legislation, was echoing President Bush's earlier remarks that there was nothing left to do except to wait on the courts.

"More than anything else, the Schiavo case brings to light the simmering contradictions within the Republican Party," said Marshall Wittman, a former aide to Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and now a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council. "On the one hand, it seeks to present itself as the party of limited government, but on the other hand, there is evidently no aspect of American life that government won't intervene in."

Wittman, who has also worked for the conservative Heritage Foundation and the Christian Coalition, recalled how the party's focus used to be on the rule of law and valuing the means over the ends in espousing ideology.

"All that's been tossed out the window because of the demands of the religious right," he said

Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University in Miami, said that if there are negative impressions from the case, Republicans are lucky that this happened more than 18 months before the next election.

One problem even then, Moreno said, is that most voters are motivated by a general perception of what the political parties stand for, not by specific high-profile events like the Terri Schiavo case.

"And so the image for the Republicans is that you look like you're beholden to that religious right in the country," he said. "That's when people get very uncomfortable with the Republicans."

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