The death of a brain-damaged Florida woman whose family fought over her right to live or die could have political ramifications in Washington. The case of Terri Schiavo may have an impact on the battle over President Bush's judicial nominations in the U.S. Senate.
The Schiavo case has dominated U.S. political discussion over the past few weeks, and that could carry over when Congress returns to work next week.
The Republican-led Congress took the unusual step of inserting itself into the Schiavo case nearly two weeks ago. The House and Senate both passed legislation giving Terri Schiavo's parents the right to pursue in federal courts their case to have her feeding tube reinserted, after her husband had it removed.
The measure was quickly signed into law by President Bush, after he made a surprise trip back to Washington from his ranch in Texas.
The president paid tribute to Terri Schiavo and her supporters following her death on Thursday.
"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," said Mr. Bush.
State courts in Florida consistently upheld the right of Terri Schiavo's husband, Michael, to disconnect the feeding tube that had kept her alive for 15 years. Mrs. Schiavo suffered severe brain damage during a heart attack in 1990, but her parents argued she might have been able to recover had she been kept alive.
Despite the intervention of Congress, a succession of federal courts, including the Supreme Court, rejected requests by Terri Schiavo's parents to have her feeding tube reattached.
Now, some conservatives want to use the Schiavo case to push for new limits on the power of judges.
Former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan is now a commentator on MSNBC television. He spoke on the Don Imus program.
"So, my view is that a lot of things are going to come out of this, and one of them, I hope, would be that the Republican Party would assert the authority of legislators and executives over judges, and put them back in their place, where they belong," said Mr. Buchanan.
One of the first issues the Senate will deal with when Congress returns to work is trying to break the logjam over several of President Bush's nominees for federal judgeships.
Democrats say some of the president's nominees are too conservative. They have resorted to a parliamentary delaying tactic, known as the filibuster, to prevent some of them from coming up for an approval vote before the full Senate.
Republicans are threatening to take the unusual step of trying to change the Senate rules to make it harder for the Democratic minority in the Senate to block judicial appointments.
Senators from both parties have referred to this as the so-called 'nuclear option,' because it would bring strong opposition from Democrats, and could bring all legislative business in the Senate to a standstill.
Democrats and liberal lobbying groups are warning Republicans not to do anything that would weaken the right of the minority party to block nominees through the use of the Senate filibuster.
Ralph Neas is with a liberal advocacy group called People for the American Way.
"The American people have common sense," he said. "They realize we need our constitutional system of checks and balances."
Political analysts say the Schiavo case could embolden Republicans who want to trim the power of what they like to call 'activist judges' in the federal judiciary.
Larry Sabato directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
"They are talking about the 'nuclear option,' and most members of the Republican [Senate] Caucus appear to be quite determined to do it," said Mr. Sabato. "There may be just enough Republican defections to stop the nuclear option, the abolition of the filibuster in judicial appointments. But it would be difficult for them to take a harder line."
But Professor Sabato also notes that several public opinion polls suggest that a majority of Americans disagreed with congressional intervention in the Schiavo case, and that could hurt Republicans in the short term.
The congressional action also drew a rare rebuke from a federal judge. Federal Judge Stanley Birch, who was appointed by President Bush's father, said the congressional and presidential intervention in the Schiavo matter was at odds with the U.S. Constitution, which traditionally has given state courts the final say in such cases.