GOP's role in Schiavo case worries some party members

WASHINGTON - The extraordinary steps taken to save the life of Terri Schiavo have won plaudits from evangelical Christians and other conservative activists, but some Republicans worry about a potential backlash among others who view the intervention as an overbearing use of government power.

As Congress passed legislation allowing federal courts to review whether Schiavo's feeding tube should be withdrawn, a poll by ABC News found that 70 percent of those surveyed believed that congressional intervention was inappropriate.

So, while some GOP strategists have argued that the issue is a political winner for the party because it appeals to religious conservatives, other Republicans warn that the bold maneuver risks alienating swing voters, as well as Republicans worried about government invasions of individuals' privacy.

"It goes beyond shameless politics," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster. "It becomes a more crystallized proof point that we are no longer the party of smaller government. We have become a party of, 'It doesn't matter what size government is as long as it is imposing our set of values.'"

Before voting against the bill, Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, said: "How deep is this Congress going to reach into the personal lives of each and every one of us?"

Still, some GOP analysts say the immediate poll results - and the concerns raised by Shays and others - are not politically significant because the activists pushing to keep Schiavo alive care more passionately than do the people opposing that view.

"Intensity matters," said Gary L. Bauer, a conservative leader who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.

The Schiavo case does not split lawmakers or the country strictly along ideological lines; many people are influenced as much by their own personal or family experience as they are by political leanings.

Still, the decisive legislative action is widely viewed within the political community as a show of strength for social conservatives, who are girding for bigger congressional battles.

Many of the these activists are urging GOP leaders to move more aggressively this spring to win confirmation of Bush's judicial nominees. They argue that the Schiavo case reinforces the importance of placing conservatives in the judiciary.

"This is just one more perfect portrait of why we need to have fair and just men on the bench," said Lanier Swann, director of government relations of Concerned Women of America, a conservative group that has made Schiavo a top priority.

Bauer said the Schiavo case is the beginning of a much larger debate that will shape U.S. politics for years to come.

"We're on the cusp of a really gigantic national debate about life and advances in medicine," he said. The Schiavo case "touches in a very important way in the whole debate on the sanctity of life, and it will encourage voters to believe that it is something Republicans feel strongly about."

The political advantages of pursuing the legislation were trumpeted in a GOP staff memo circulated in the Senate late last week, although Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said he had no knowledge of the memo.

The memo argued that "this is a great political issue" because it puts Democrats in a difficult position - and because "the pro-life base will be very excited that the Senate is debating this important issue."

But the ABC poll, conducted by phone Sunday as Congress was acting, found that 63 percent supported removal of Schiavo's feeding tube and 28 percent opposed it.

The poll also found that solely among those Republicans surveyed, Congress' action did not win strong backing. According to the poll, 58 percent of Republicans believed the intervention in the case was inappropriate and 61 percent supported removing Schiavo's tube.

The survey's margin of error for its entire sample of 501 adults was plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. Among the Republicans surveyed, the error margin was plus or minus 8 percentage points.

The legislation passed the Senate under the chamber's unanimous consent rules. Only three members, all Republicans were on the floor - Frist, Mel Martinez of Florida and John W. Warner of Virginia.

In the House, the bill passed 203-58, with 174 members not voting. Supporting it were 156 Republicans and 47 Democrats; opposing it were five Republicans and 53 Democrats.

Some of the conservative critics of Congress' action say the issue goes to the core of what kind of party the GOP will become. They worry it will further erode the party's commitment to limiting the role of the federal government.

"Conservatives who have criticized the idea that Washington should run everything ought to be sheepish" about what they have done, said David Boaz, an analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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