Newcomer Makes Mark in House

Posted March 25, 2005 at 6:06pm

Even before Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz won election to Congress last fall, many House Democrats believed the Floridian had the makings of a leader.

Last week, Schultz began earning her stripes, as she guided many Democrats in their opposition to Congressional intervention in the emotional and tense debate over the life of Terri Schiavo. The former state Senator, involved in the issue for a decade in her home state, made a point of arguing the issue should be left to the state courts, not Members of Congress.

“She has a deep personal issue in this,” explained one senior Democratic aide. “And, she’s very good.”

Another leadership staffer said the Caucus expects to see of more Schultz as she settles in as a Member:

“She is a rising star. She’s thoughtful in her approach to dealing with divisive issues — her legislative experience in Florida has prepared her well for the complex issues facing Congress.”

Despite being catapulted onto the national scene, Schultz said she was neither seeking the attention nor motivated by the possibility of raising her stature in Congress. Rather, she said she was just doing her part — coming from a position of experience — to help her colleagues wade through a complex and difficult issue.

“I’ve been involved for several years,” Schultz said in a telephone interview. “There’s been such a spotlight shone on this issue that I guess I hadn’t really thought about [taking a lead role] too much. My goal and my desire the whole time has been to provide as many facts as I could to my colleagues.”

She was quick to dismiss any talk of being a rising star.

“I’m just hard working,” Schultz said. “I don’t really think about that. As nice as those descriptions are, I don’t think about those things.”

Schultz acknowledged she “was a little nervous” about taking such a high-profile position as a freshman because she didn’t want to appear presumptuous. The response from fellow Members, however, was appreciation, she said.

A week later, Schultz is still getting media calls for interviews and appearances. She said she’s “trying not to do press just for the sake of doing press. You have to be measured when you are in the middle of the debate like this. I pick my battles carefully.”

But the Florida Democrat was thrust into the middle of this particular battle — one many Democrats were eager to avoid — when the issue headed for the House floor a week ago.

Schultz said she quickly assembled her files from 2003 when Gov. Jeb Bush (R) called on the Florida Legislature to pass similar legislation to reinsert Schiavo’s feeding tube. Having the information readily available, she said she worked the floor to get Members the background on the case.

“I took on the role of disseminating the facts so we could help people get information,” she said. “I felt it was my responsibility since I had the facts to help as many of my colleagues as I could.”

Schultz not only has legislative experience dealing with the Schiavo case, but also has a personal tie. Less than five weeks ago, her family made the decision to remove the feeding tube of her husband’s aunt.

She said she was “saddened” Congress, a body of lawmakers rather than doctors or ethicists, chose to get involved in the issue and questioned the motives behind bringing the issue to the floor.

And while the freshman Democrat noted she’s still trying to absorb the events of last week, she said she has learned one very valuable lesson.

“I’ve concluded, and I had not thought about it before this week, that it is so inappropriate for Congress to be involved in this or any other personal family matter,” she said.

“Congress is a political body and at the end of the day, cannot be objective on either side of the aisle.”