Where were the Senate Democrats?

Many Democrats in Senate opposed congressional intervention in the Schiavo case. In the end, not one of them stepped up to stop it.

By Tim Grieve
March 21, 2005 10:13PM (UTC)
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There are 44 Democrats in the U.S. Senate, and any one of them could have slowed Congress' headfirst dive into the Terri Schiavo controversy by calling for a roll-call vote on the bill George W. Bush signed this morning. Not one of them did.

That's not to say that Senate Democrats supported the bill; many didn't. It is to say that they didn't want to get in the way. Maybe they believed that opposition was futile -- with Republicans in solid control of the Senate, the bill was going to pass regardless what the Democrats did -- or maybe they thought it best to let the Republicans engage in this macabre spectacle all by themselves. It was probably some of both, plus this: If Republicans were willing to go so far as to subpoena Terri Schiavo in order to keep anyone from letting her die, imagine what they'd be willing to do in a campaign commercial against a Senate Democrat who stood in their way. That's not an idle fear. As Senate Republicans worked the Schiavo case over the weekend, they had on their desks a memo reminding them that this is a "great political issue" for the GOP -- and one that might be used successfully against Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, who is up for re-election in 2006.

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The problem, of course, is that it's hard to stand up for boring old issues like federalism, the separation of powers and respect for the finality of court decisions when the other side can offer up the tragic story of a brain-dead woman, complete with sensational revelations that she might still be communicating with family members. There are ways of framing opposition to congressional intervention eloquently and in emotional terms that match the moment: Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, reflecting on her own family's recent experience with an end-of-life decision, said, "No one felt it essential that I file legislation to stop it. This type of end-of-life, gut-wrenching decision happens every day." But it's just as easy to sound tone deaf on the issue, as another Democrat, Florida Rep. Jim Davis, did when he proclaimed congressional action in the Schiavo case a "clear threat to our democracy."

So while Democrats in the House split on the Schiavo bill passed early this morning -- 47 Democrats voted yes, 53 voted no and 102 stayed away -- the Senate's 44 Democrats took the safer course and remained silent. Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum actually thanked two Senate Democrats -- Ron Wyden of Oregon and Carl Levin of Michigan -- for letting the bill move forward despite their earlier opposition. Last week, Wyden took to the Senate floor to warn that Congress was "playing medical czar" and risked flooding the federal courts with "thousands of cases just like this." According to a report in Portland's Oregonian, Wyden was concerned that anything Congress did in the Schiavo case might be used later to undermine Oregon's assisted-suicide law. When Republicans narrowed their bill so that it applied only to the Schivao case, Wyden stopped fighting it. "He does not support it, but he will not filibuster it," a Wyden aide told the Oregonian.

Levin took a similar approach. In a CNN interview over the weekend, he said it was "unwise for Congress to intervene in a very deeply personal matter such as this." He just didn't do anything about it.


Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Carl Levin D-mich. Rick Santorum Ron Wyden