Terri Schiavo’s parents won the chance to plea for their daughter’s life in federal court with an extraordinary law passed in an emergency session of Congress that saw lawmakers choosing sides in an emotional family battle.

President Bush signed the bill almost immediately after its passage early Monday, vowing in a statement to “stand on the side of those defending life for all Americans, including those with disabilities.”

“In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life,” he said.

The law gave Schiavo’s parents the right to file suit in federal court over the withdrawal of nourishment and medical treatment needed to sustain their daughter, who suffered severe brain damage 15 years ago.

A lawyer for the parents arrived at federal district court in Tampa, Fla., not long after Bush signed the bill and filed a request for an emergency injunction to keep Schiavo fed.

Her husband says Schiavo told him that she wouldn’t want to be kept alive in a vegetative state. Her parents, and many of the lawmakers backing their effort to restore her feeding tubes, say she needs treatment and another opportunity for life.

“Tonight we have given Terri Schiavo all we could – a chance to live,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. “After four days of words, the best of them uttered in prayer, Congress has acted and a life may have been saved.”

The bill passed the House early Monday after an often wrenching debate that stretched past midnight. It won the backing of virtually all the Republicans and almost half the Democrats who sprinted back to the Capitol for the debate, while 174 of the House’s 435 elected members did not vote.

House Republicans scrambled to yank lawmakers back from a two-week Easter recess and amass the 218 votes necessary to bring the bill to a vote. The Senate approved the measure on Sunday by voice vote in a nearly empty chamber.

Several lawmakers recounted their families’ struggles with decisions about caring for incapacitated relatives in an often emotional debate over who should decide life and death.

Many Republicans said Terri Schiavo isn’t in the hopeless state that her husband portrays.

“We have heard very moving accounts of people close to Terri that she is, indeed, very much alive,” said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. “She laughs, she cries and she smiles with those around her.”

Some Democrats countered that elected lawmakers weren’t qualified to make a medical diagnosis or second-guess the decisions made by Florida courts.

“I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong, but that’s the point. Neither do my colleagues,” said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.

A few Republicans questioned the motives of Terri Schiavo’s husband, Michael, suggesting he doesn’t have his wife’s best interest at heart.

“Now, he has had her feeding tube removed and sentenced her to a most excruciating death, citing Terri’s own wishes as the rationale …” said Rep. Jim Ryun, R-Kan. “Michael did not remember this supposed request until years after Terri’s initial injuries when a cash settlement was awarded to her, a settlement he would stand to inherit.”

And a few Democrats lobbed accusations at Republicans that political motives drove their passion for Schiavo and her parents.

“If you don’t want a decision to be made politically, why in the world do you ask 535 politicians to make it? Does anyone think that this decision will be made without consideration of electoral support or party or ideology? Of course not,” said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.

Republican supporters said the “Palm Sunday Compromise” seeks to protect the rights of a disabled person. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said the law would not affect state assisted suicide laws nor serve as a precedent for future legislation.

It gives Schiavo’s parents the right to ask a federal court to review the case and says the court, after determining the merits of the suit, “shall issue such declaratory and injunctive relief as may be necessary to protect the rights” of the woman.

Injunctive relief, in this case, could mean the reinsertion of feeding tubes. Schiavo’s feeding tubes were removed Friday at the request of her husband.

Congress last week tried to block the removal of the feeding tubes by issuing subpoenas that would have forced health care workers to provide continued treatment, but the move was rejected by a Florida court.

The bill is S. 686.

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© 2005 The Associated Press