Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told his Republican colleagues in a private meeting Tuesday that he stood by his decision to have Congress intervene in the Terri Schiavo debate — but added that he would support a full review of Congress’ action.
“I am open to any sort of review or critical review [of whether] we could have done anything differently,” Frist said in an interview Tuesday. “But the fact is it was unanimous, and the fact is we worked with the Democratic leadership, and I felt it was appropriate to act.”
Frist addressed the Schiavo matter during a regularly scheduled weekly strategy lunch — the first meeting of all GOP Senators since Congress went into recess March 21.
Frist said a Congressional review could include holding Senate hearings on whether Congress acted within its jurisdiction.
With the Senate now in session for four straight weeks of work, Republican leaders are urging their colleagues to focus on two key issues: efforts to overhaul Social Security and GOP proposals to help grow the economy.
Republican Senators received talking points Tuesday on both of those subjects. In the talking points, there was no mention of the Schiavo intervention, which occurred during the two-week recess, or any other social issues.
GOP sources said there is an acknowledgement among many Republicans that the American public believes the GOP-led Congress “overstepped” its authority by inserting itself into the Schiavo case, which had to do with whether to continue feeding a brain-damaged Florida woman.
“There is a broad consternation that we overreached on Schiavo,” said a senior GOP aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It has been politically negative that Republicans have been perceived as meddling in this situation.”
Republican leaders are now trying to focus the Senate on economic issues such as President Bush’s plan to revamp Social Security — the centerpiece of his domestic agenda.
“We have got to start focusing on some of the issues out there that we are going to be debating here in the next few weeks,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.). “Obviously, the president is out there, as we are all out there, talking about the importance of dealing with Social Security.”
Democrats made the case that Republicans have been forced to acknowledge that the past few weeks have damaged the GOP politically.
“I think they know they stepped over the line on a couple of these things, and they have weakened their position,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).
Publicly, though, several Republicans defended Congress’ decision to direct a federal court to review the Schiavo case — and emphasized that the measure passed the Senate with unanimous consent.
“It seems like a lot of folks are branding the Republicans with somehow intervening with this process, but the reality is there was I think a shared view among Republicans and Democrats in the leadership here that something needs to be done, and allowing this to be heard by the federal courts was an appropriate course of action,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “I don’t think there was any other way of handling it.”
Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who is responsible for shepherding a Social Security proposal through the chamber, said it was Congress’ “constitutional prerogative” to act on the Schiavo case, but he added that he’s pleased to see the emphasis shifting to crafting a Social Security plan.
“Social Security will come up sometime this summer,” Grassley said.
On Social Security, GOP Senators were given 12 specific points to discuss with the media and constituents. Republicans were told to talk, among other things, about how “there are more people collecting benefits,” and “benefits are growing faster than inflation” and that anyone born before 1950 will not be affected by any proposal.
Republicans were also told to specifically cite their legislative accomplishments and goals as a way of highlighting their commitment to helping the economy grow.