Schiavo debacle muddles role of Congress

Should Congress guide the nation’s morals, or just make its rules? Micromanage the states, or let them govern themselves?

The answers came more easily to most lawmakers before this past weekend, when Congress passed a bill to let federal courts review Florida court decisions on Terri Schiavo’s right-to-die case. The law President Bush signed Monday scrambled the positions of some of Congress’ staunchest partisans.

Supporting it in the House were Republicans who trumpet states rights. Joining them were 47 Democrats, only six fewer than the number who opposed it. On the Senate floor, the bill was approved by voice vote after minority Democrats who opposed it – not a shy bunch – stepped aside.

The lone Senate objection, in fact, came from a southern Republican – who quietly inserted his statement into the Congressional Record hours after the measure passed.

“‘The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people,'” Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said, quoting the 10th Amendment. “This is a principle of federalism which, I believe, is not being followed by Congress in enacting this legislation.

“Greater wisdom is not always reposed in the branches of federal government,” he added.

In the House, leaders herded members on Easter break back to the Capitol for the midnight vote. The bill passed 203-58. Democrats split – 47 in favor, 53 against. Republican voted for it 156-5. Skipping the vote were 174 lawmakers, including 102 Democrats and 71 Republicans and the House’s lone independent.

Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., a veteran of the civil rights movement who opposes government involvement in such personal decisions as abortion, found himself voting for the bill.

He has trouble explaining why, recounting that he spent Sunday being angry at the leaders of both parties for letting the bill come to the floor for a vote while at the same time feeling sympathy for the family he saw on television.

“I felt that no matter how I voted, a lot of people would think that I voted the wrong way. So given the choice, I thought I should err on the side of giving the family a chance to let her live,” he said. “That’s why we (Congress) were the wrong people to ask. We don’t know what the answer is except that the involvement doesn’t belong to us.”

Now Serrano wonders who will suffer more at the polls, Democrats who voted “yes,” or lawmakers who didn’t show up.

Another liberal Northeastern Democrat, Rep. Stephen F. Lynch of Massachusetts, said the “human side” of the drama inspired him to buck his state delegation and vote for the bill.

“I felt the position of the parents was particularly compelling. I have a daughter, so I understand how powerful that kind of love is,” he said. “The bill was so narrowly tailored to this instance I didn’t see it as a general intrusion, which is what we (Democrats) are usually accused of.”

Several Republicans bristled throughout the weekend over the notion that voting for the bill dented their credentials as proponents of states rights, saying the tragedy of this case trumps other considerations.

“I’m a states’ rights Republican who believes passionately in having the federal government as the absolute last resort,” Rep. David Drier, R-Calif., said Sunday on CBS.

Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Ill., said the Constitution gives Congress the right to decide the jurisdiction of federal courts.

“To say that Congress should not get involved is to say that Congress should just fold up and go home,” Manzullo told reporters Sunday. “Terri is in the process of dying.”

© 2005 The Associated Press