It is likely that only two of five Nevadans in the state’s congressional delegation voted on the measure in Congress that transferred the Theresa Schiavo case from state to federal courts.

In the House vote on March 21, Republican Jon Porter voted for the measure, Democrat Shelley Berkley voted against it, and Jim Gibbons didn’t vote.

In the “Senate” vote on March 20 (cast by three senators in a nearly empty hall), it is unlikely that Republican John Ensign voted, since the measure was passed by a voice vote. The absence of the Senate when a bill is enacted is permitted as long as no one objects to the lack of a quorum. A single senator could have halted the proceedings with such an objection. (Some accounts said there was a fourth senator present, none of them Ensign.)

However, while they may not have voted, both Ensign and Democrat Harry Reid issued statements after the phantom vote making clear their support for the federal intervention into the Schiavo case. Ensign: “We should foster a culture of life in America, and I believe that facilitating Terri Schiavo’s death would violate that principle.” Reid: “I am pleased Senator [Bill] Frist and I were able to pass the bill that protects the life of Terri Schiavo by allowing her parents to go to federal court.”

Reid’s role became fodder for the ongoing discussion of whether he’s tough enough to be the opposition leader. In the House, Democrats forced Republicans to return to Washington to cast an on-the-record vote.

That contrasted sharply with Reid’s stance. He was in the Middle East and spoke with Frist, the Senate Republican leader, by telephone. After getting Frist’s promise that there would be no action other than passage of the Schiavo bill, Reid gave his consent for the extraordinary Senate action. Had Reid forced Frist to follow normal procedures, it would have meant a fuller debate of the Schiavo matter on the floor of the Senate, an actual Senate vote—and a roll call vote.

When the bill came up for the phantom vote, one Democratic senator could have stopped passage of the Schiavo measure, but Reid’s deal with Frist bound the Democrats to let it pass.

Soon Reid was being accused of rolling over for the Republicans—or praised by right-wing figures, who called the vote a sign of the growing influence of Christian evangelical politics. “When I heard that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid was with us, I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” said Traditional Values Coalition Chairman Louis Sheldon to Time magazine. “[This] says that being pro-life is respectable and has political credibility.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...