WASHINGTON -- The Senate passed a bill that could prolong Terri Schiavo's life while House Republicans, stalled by Democrats, scrambled to bring enough lawmakers back to the Capitol for an emergency vote early today.
President Bush rushed back from his Texas ranch for a chance to sign the measure that could trigger a federal court review and a quick restoration of feeding tubes needed to keep the brain-damaged Florida woman alive.
Republican supporters said the "Palm Sunday Compromise" would protect the constitutional rights of a disabled person, and denied suggestions that they viewed the case as an opportunity to shore up support among religious conservatives ahead of next year's elections.
The House began debate on the legislation anew late Sunday, with the plan to vote just past midnight, hours after the Senate approved the bill by voice vote.
"As millions of Americans observe the beginning of Holy Week this Palm Sunday we are reminded that every life has purpose and none is without meaning," said House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a leader in crafting the bill.
But Rep. Jim Davis, D-Fla., said the congressional action was "a clear threat to our democracy." Congress, he said, was ignoring the constitutional separation of power and "is on the verge of telling states, courts, judges and juries that their opinions, deliberations and decisions do not matter."
The White House said the president would act as soon as the measure reaches him.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said the federal district court in Florida, which is open 24 hours a day, had already been informed that a petition would be filed as soon as the president signs the measure -- with the presumption a judge will order that the tube be replaced.
"Time is not on Terri Schiavo's side," DeLay said. "The few remaining objecting House Democrats have so far cost Mrs. Schiavo two meals already today."
Even though the legislation would pave an avenue for federal jurisdiction in the legal case, there was no way to determine in advance how or when a judge would rule -- or even which judge would be assigned the case by lottery.
In a special session Sunday afternoon, Democrats refused to allow the bill to be passed without a roll call vote.
Under House rules, such a vote could not occur before 12:01 a.m. today when at least 218 of the 435-member House must appear to establish a quorum. Also, because it was an expedited vote, the measure needed votes from two-thirds of those present for passage.
The House has 232 Republicans, 202 Democrats and one independent.
The legislation would give Schiavo's parents the right to file suit in federal court over the withdrawal of food and medical treatment needed to sustain the life of their daughter.
An attorney for Schiavo's parents filed a request for an emergency injunction with a federal appellate court to have the tube reinserted once the bill is passed. He also planned to make a similar request with the federal district court in Tampa.
Schiavo has been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years. Her feeding tubes were removed Friday afternoon at the request of her husband, Michael, who says that his wife expressed to him before she fell ill that she did not want to be kept alive under such circumstances.
Michael Schiavo said he was outraged that congressional leaders were intervening in the battle with Terri Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler. They have been fighting for years over whether she should be permitted to die or kept alive by the feeding tube.
"I think that the Congress has more important things to discuss," he told CNN, calling the move political and criticizing DeLay, who helped broker the congressional compromise.
Outside the hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla,. a subdued crowd of about 50 people prayed and sang behind signs bearing such slogans as "Let Terri Live" and "President Bush Please Save Terri." One man played "Amazing Grace" on a trumpet, as a pickup truck pulled a trailer bearing 10-foot-high replicas of the stone Ten Commandments tablets and a huge working version of the Liberty Bell.
Will Svab, 24, of Seminole, Fla., held a 6-foot plastic foam spoon bearing the words "Please Feed Terri."
"We're hopeful," he said of the recent developments in Congress. "In our faith it's Palm Sunday. It brings us hope that something good will happen."