WASHINGTON -- The end of the Terri Schiavo passion play immediately reignited a bitter political debate in this country yesterday, one which will have repercussions from the White House to the U.S. Supreme Court and threatens the political fortunes of those on both sides of the issue.
Condolences quickly gave way to anger and accusations, with the top Republican in the House of Representatives warning judges at both the state and federal level they will have to answer for their actions.
The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas considers a question during a news conference in Houston in this Oct. 22, 2004 file photo. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, Files)
"The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior," said Tom DeLay, the Republican leader who moved the Florida case to the federal arena.
The protracted Schiavo ordeal has dominated news networks in this country for two weeks, bringing to the fore fundamental questions ranging from the rule of law to the right of the state to safeguard human life.
It split both Republicans and Democrats and — if public opinion polls are accurate — made losers of both.
U.S. President George W. Bush said Schiavo's memory should be honored by those who continue the fight to "build a culture of life."Bush interrupted his Easter break in Texas to return to Washington to sign a bill in the middle of the night moving Schiavo's case to federal court. But courts in Florida and Georgia refused to reopen the case. The Supreme Court declined six times to hear arguments.
"I urge all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected, especially those who live at the mercy of others," Bush said.
"The essence of civilization is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak. In cases where there are serious doubts and questions, the presumption should be in the favor of life."
DeLay's threat to judges was greeted with shock in many quarters. Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy branded it "irresponsible and reprehensible. At a time when emotions are running high, Mr. DeLay needs to make clear that he is not advocating violence against anyone," he said.In Houston, his home district, DeLay said Congress "for many years has shirked its responsibility to hold the judiciary accountable. No longer.
"We will look at an arrogant, out of control, unaccountable judiciary that thumbed their nose at the Congress and president when given jurisdiction to hear this case anew and look at all the facts ... The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today."
DeLay's comments are important on two fronts — an epic struggle over anticipated Supreme Court vacancies is expected to mark the second Bush term, with Democrats threatening to try to block overtly conservative nominees. But that will be played out in the Senate, not in DeLay's domain in the House of Representatives.
His remarks also ignored the fact that many of the judges who ignored Bush and the Republican-led Congress were Republican appointees.
DeLay is also fighting a litany of allegations of ethics violations and is the target of third-party TV ads alleging he used the Schiavo case to deflect attention from his own problems.
He had told a group of social conservatives just before the Palm Sunday recall of Congress that God had given Schiavo to America to highlight the need to fight for a "culture of life."
Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, said he believes DeLay was likely speaking from conviction while trying to rally a Christian-right base that could help him keep his key post.
"The truth is, both parties made terrible misjudgments in this case," Sabato said. "Republicans thought they were going to hit a home run ... and instead they committed an error. The Democrats could have been reaping the rewards of a principled stance — but they were too scared to take a stand."
Polls have consistently shown Americans believe Michael Schiavo was right to act on what he said was his wife's wish — not to be kept alive in a vegetative state — and a strong majority indicated Congress was wrong to intervene in a private matter.
Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion, said the evangelical base which helped propel Bush to re-election does not hold a monolithic view on the right-to-die, as it does on abortion and same-sex marriage. "There is a fissure in the Republican party," he said, "because there is a libertarian wing ... which does not want government involved in this... But this has cemented the relationship between the Republican leadership and the evangelicals."
Many Democrats voted to intervene in the Schiavo case, fearful of being portrayed as backing the death of an incapacitated woman.
They remained largely silent yesterday.
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