Post-Schiavo Questions Await Congress's GOP Leaders
Priorities Debated as Recess Ends
By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page A04
Republican congressional leaders return to Washington
today to confront a political landscape that is
considerably more problematic than the one they left
two weeks ago, when the House and Senate adjourned for
The searingly emotional Terri Schiavo case divided
Republican-leaning voters and drew Congress into an
extraordinary Palm Sunday intervention, which is now
fueling claims that party leaders are out of step with
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), already
battling ethics charges, added to his combative
reputation by bitterly attacking state and federal
judges who rejected pleas to keep the brain-damaged
woman alive. Meanwhile, his allies were rattled by
criticisms from several conservative publications,
including a Wall Street Journal editorial that accused
DeLay of abuses that "sooner or later will sweep him
President Bush's top priority, restructuring Social
Security, made little if any progress despite his
all-out campaigning during the recess, key lawmakers
said. And the Senate seems closer than ever to a major
collision over judicial nominations, a topic made even
more emotional by the role of federal judges in the
Aides to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.)
said yesterday that he soon will offer Democrats a
compromise on the long-standing impasse, even though a
growing number of conservative activists are pressing
him to force a showdown now. Democrats predict the
offer will be too flimsy to entice them to stop
filibustering several appellate court nominees, but
the mere fact that Frist is talking of negotiations,
they say, convinces them he lacks the 51 votes he
needs to change the filibuster rules in a chamber with
55 GOP members.
The mixture of issues and events, some top Republicans
say, puts the party at a precarious juncture, where it
needs to reassure voters that its leaders are ethical
and focused on hearth-and-home issues such as jobs,
affordable gasoline and secure retirements.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) says Democrats
suffered major setbacks in the 1990s when an
ethics-challenged leader -- House Speaker Jim Wright
(D-Tex.), who resigned in 1989 -- became a larger
symbol of his party than its platform issues. "That's
a cocktail for disaster," Graham said. If a political
leader's personal problems are coupled with "some
policy decisions that are disconnected to the public,
then you've got an opening" for trouble, he said. "If
we don't watch it, it could happen to us."
Graham is wary of some Republicans' calls for further
Schiavo-inspired legislation, such as a federal
definition of "persistent vegetative state." The
states, he said, "are capable of defining end-of-life
Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said several
national surveys found that 60 to 80 percent of
Americans opposed Congress's March 20 intervention in
the Schiavo case. Federal courts promptly rejected the
lawmakers' directive to review a series of Florida
court decisions allowing Schiavo's feeding tube to be
removed. One appellate judge chastised Congress and
Bush for their actions.
Fabrizio said voters "are probably wondering why we
can't get deficit reduction or tax reform or Social
Security reform as quickly as we got the Schiavo bill"
from the Republican-controlled Congress. Because
conservative Christian activists were seen as pushing
the legislation, he said, "that's a symbol of what
your [party's] priorities are, and you'd better show
them another symbol."
Also during the recess, former GOP senator John C.
Danforth of Missouri, an ordained Episcopal minister,
wrote a New York Times op-ed article criticizing his
party's emphasis on opposing stem cell research,
same-sex marriage and Schiavo's husband. "Republicans
have transformed our party into the political arm of
conservative Christians," he wrote.
DeLay hinted last week that Congress might try to
impeach some of the judges involved in the Schiavo
case, but other prominent Republicans are urging calm.
"I think there will be some legislation out there
[dealing with end-of-life issues], but I don't think
there will be a mainstream effort to put this in the
top 10 priorities," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a
member of the House GOP leadership. "We're hearing a
lot about the prices of gasoline," he said, and "the
timing is right to pass the energy bill."
Kingston dismissed suggestions that DeLay's problems
could hurt the party. He said he has held more than a
dozen town hall meetings in his district recently and
"I have had not one single question, even from
political followers, about him."
With the Schiavo case dominating national news during
the two-week break, Bush made modest progress in his
60-day campaign to build support for adding personal
accounts to Social Security, key players said. "I
believe it's about where we left off two weeks ago,"
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said at the end of
the recess. He is the chairman of the Finance
Committee, which is responsible for Social Security
But Grassley said he is optimistic that support for
the president's efforts will grow as more Americans
realize that Social Security faces long-term solvency
Grassley told Republican committee staff members
yesterday that he will press forward with Social
Security legislation this year. At a meeting attended
by staff members and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah),
Grassley said he will call a Social Security hearing
before the end of the month and plans to put a bill
before the committee in July, according to GOP aides
who attended the meeting. Only last week, Grassley
told reporters he did not believe Social Security
legislation could be passed this year.
But underscoring the difficult road ahead, Grassley
said the president's Social Security plan would swell
the national debt tremendously if the move is not
accompanied by significant cuts to promised benefits.
Under Bush's proposal for individual accounts, the
national debt would more than triple, from about 40
percent of the economy, or gross domestic product, to
150 percent of GDP by 2072. "That does not sound like
something the Democrats would sign on to," the aide
said Hatch remarked.
Like Bush, Grassley is focusing mainly on the proposal
to allow private accounts, which would divert a
portion of workers' payroll taxes into stock and bond
portfolios that would follow them into retirement.
To some, the darkest cloud above Congress is the
Senate's looming clash over judicial nominees.
Democrats have used the filibuster -- which can be
stopped only by 60 votes in the 100-member chamber --
to thwart several of Bush's most conservative
appellate court appointees. Republican leaders have
threatened to change Senate rules to bar such
filibusters, which would require 51 votes. Democrats
say they would respond by bringing the Senate to a
standstill, hence the scenario's moniker, "the nuclear
Yesterday, dozens of conservative groups released a
letter urging Frist to end the filibusters "at the
earliest possible moment." Some of the signers
predicted Frist has the votes he needs, but others
said the vote count is uncertain and may remain so for
If anything, the Schiavo case has heightened tensions
over the judicial stalemate. Tony Perkins, president
of the Family Research Council, said the woman's death
"should awaken Americans to the problems of the
courts." More conservative judges are needed, he said,
even though others noted that several of the judges
involved in the Schiavo case are Republican
Even some Republicans who strongly oppose the
Democrats' filibusters are worried that the Schiavo
case suggests a GOP drift away from nuts-and-bolts
legislation and toward the more polarizing agenda of
religious conservatives. "I didn't come here to make a
statement," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the former
majority leader. "I came here to get results."
Intervening in Schiavo's case, he said, "was the
morally right thing to do," but "it really bothered me
that the federal government would inject itself into a
family medical case."
Staff writers Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
contributed to this report.