Working against the clock, House lawmakers tried to prevent doctors in Florida from removing the feeding tube Friday from a severely brain-damaged woman.
In a two-pronged approach, a House committee was issuing congressional subpoenas to stop doctors from disconnecting the tube, while an attorney for the parents of the woman, Terri Schiavo, said he would ask a federal judge in Tampa to block the removal and review the actions of state courts.
Such habeas corpus appeals seek to require the government to justify its actions.
"We are going to ask him to issue a stay because in this case, state action would be used to end the life of an innocent, disabled woman," the attorney, David Gibbs said.
Police in Pinellas Park, Fla., meanwhile, readied for the hundreds of protesters expected to show up outside Schiavo's hospice as the hours slipped away before the scheduled 1 p.m. removal of her feeding tube.
The Florida House on Thursday passed a bill 78-37 to block the withholding of food and water from patients in a persistent vegetative state who did not leave specific instructions regarding their care. But hours later, the Senate defeated a different measure 21-16, and one of the nine Republicans voting against indicated that any further votes would be futile.
In a last-ditch attempt to stop the court-ordered removal, a House committee on Capitol Hill here decided early Friday morning to start an investigation into Schiavo's case and issue subpoenas ordering doctors and hospice administrators not to remove her feeding tubes and to keep her alive until that investigation was complete.
The effort by the House Government Reform Committee came after lawmakers in both Washington and Tallahassee failed in attempts to pass legislation to keep her husband, Michael Schiavo, from having the tube pulled despite heavy lobbying by Schiavo's parents.
"This inquiry should give hope to Terri, her parents and friends and the millions of people throughout the world who are praying for her safety," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Government Reform chairman Tom Davis said in a joint statement. "This fight is not over."
The Government Reform Committee is the same committee that forced Major League Baseball players and officials to testify Thursday about steroid use.
It was not immediately known when the subpoenas would be delivered to Schiavo's hospice and doctors, or whether the Florida health care providers would recognize them. A possible penalty for not recognizing the subpoena is to be held in contempt of Congress, a GOP leadership aide said.
"Everything is a longshot," said Gibbs, attorney for Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler.
But several last-minute legal avenues were being tried, such as the habeas corpus appeal, which is commonly used in death penalty cases.
The Florida attorney general's office usually defends the state against habeas filings. A call to the office late Thursday for comment was not immediately returned.
As part of the last-minute flurry of activity, the Florida judge who approved the withdrawal of food and water from Schiavo denied a request from the state to keep her alive. The state appealed that decision to the Florida Supreme Court, which promptly dismissed it. The U.S. Supreme Court also denied another appeal.
At the White House, President Bush left little doubt where he stands.
"The case of Terri Schiavo raises complex issues," he said in a statement. "Yet in instances like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life. Those who live at the mercy of others deserve our special care and concern."
His brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, long has supported the parents' efforts and urged lawmakers to act before it was too late.
Schiavo suffered severe brain damage in 1990 when her heart stopped because of a chemical imbalance, and court-appointed doctors say she is in a persistent vegetative state. Her husband, Michael Schiavo, says she told him she would not want to be kept alive artificially. Her parents dispute that, and say she could get better.
The court found that it was Terri Schiavo's wish not to kept alive in her current state and issued an order to remove the feeding tube Friday. Michael Schiavo's attorney, George Felos, wouldn't comment on when and how the removal will take place or whether Michael Schiavo would visit his wife before it happened.
Doctors have said it could take a week or two for Terri Schiavo to die once the tube that delivers water and nutrients is removed.