The extraordinary intervention by Washington for a single person, in a wrenching question that families typically wrestle with in private, required a Saturday session of the Senate during Easter recess and will bring both chambers back to the Capitol on Palm Sunday.
President Bush, currently in Crawford, Texas, is changing his schedule to return to the White House today to be in place to sign emergency legislation that would shift the case to federal courts, the White House said Saturday.
"Everyone recognizes that time is important here," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., stepped into a nearly empty chamber at 6:15 p.m. Saturday and said Congress "has been working nonstop over the last three days to do its part to uphold human dignity and affirm a culture of life."
Frist said he is committed "to see this legislation pass and give Terri Schiavo one last chance at life."
The legislation, which congressional leaders said they plan to pass today or tomorrow, would allow a federal court to review the case. Lawmakers said Schiavo's feeding tube will have to be restored while that review is under way.
President Bush has said he would swiftly sign such a law.
The legislation would prolong a medical and legal drama that has pitted the incapacitated Florida woman's husband against her parents.
Republican officials declared, in a memo that was supposed to be seen only by senators, that they believe their attention to the issue could pay dividends with Christian conservatives, whose support is essential in midterm elections such as those coming up in 2006.
Schiavo, 41, spent a full day off of nourishment and fluids Saturday at a hospice in the Gulf Coast suburb of Pinellas Park, Fla. Her feeding tube was removed Friday afternoon after a state judge ignored subpoenas from Congress and enforced a deadline that lawmakers had thought they could thwart by declaring her a witness who must be protected for a future hearing they would conduct at her bedside.
Late Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, denied an emergency request from the House committee that had issued the subpoena.
Doctors said she could probably live as long as two weeks before dying of dehydration. Schiavo has been in a vegetative state for 15 years after a heart attack brought on by a chemical imbalance caused severe brain damage.
The two-page measure "for the benefit of the parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo" would give a federal court in Florida the jurisdiction to consider a claim on her behalf "relating to the withholding or withdrawal of food, fluids or medical treatment necessary to sustain her life."
House Republican leaders had wanted a bill that would apply to similar cases across the nation, but they agreed to limit it to Schiavo as the main element of the compromise with the Senate. That difference in bills the two chambers passed last week had provoked unusually bitter exchanges between Republican leaders.
Outside Schiavo's hospice in Florida, tension and anxiety rose among the demonstrators who have turned the roadside into a small tent city.
At least three protesters were arrested early Saturday, including a man who said he is a priest and who walked toward the hospice demanding to administer Holy Communion to Schiavo.
Police increased the number of officers guarding the hospice, even as Schiavo's parents who are fighting to have her feeding tube restored asked demonstrators to refrain from civil disobedience.
In Washington, lawmakers announced the agreement four hours after Schiavo's mother, Mary Schindler, went before television cameras on her way into the hospice and tearfully begged, "President Bush, politicians in Washington: please, please, please save my little girl."
Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, raged against Congress in a series of interviews, saying on CNN that the government is "getting in the middle of something they know nothing about."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Tex., who pushed Congress to consider the legislation, said he is "confident that this compromise will restore nutrition and hydration to Ms. Schiavo as long as that appeal endures."
DeLay said he did not know if she would be spared indefinitely. "That's not the point," he said. "The point is that Terri Schiavo should have the opportunity. We should investigate every avenue before we take the life of a living human being."
The tube was also removed for two days, in April 2001, after state and federal courts refused to intervene, and for six days in October 2003, after the state judge handing the case determined she had no hope of recovery.
After the eight-minute Senate session, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said House Republicans should have dealt with the matter last week. "I do not believe there was a need for this to be dragged out in the media yesterday, today and now into the weekend," he said.
Republicans acknowledged that the intervention was a departure from their usual support for states' rights. But they said their views about the sanctity of life trumped their views about federalism.
A one-page memo, distributed to Republican senators by party leaders, called the debate over Schiavo legislation "a great political issue" that would appeal to the party's base, or core, supporters. The memo singled out Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who is up for reelection next year and is potentially vulnerable in a state President Bush won last year.
"This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue," said the memo, which was reported by ABC News and later given to The Washington Post. "This is a great political issue, because Senator Nelson of Florida has already refused to become a cosponsor and this is a tough issue for Democrats."
The House is to meet at 1 p.m. today and the Senate is to meet at 2 p.m. Because objections from even one Democrat could prevent the bill from passing in the House, leaders said they may have to meet again, at 12:01 a.m. Monday, when they can put the bill on a calendar that would deny Democrats some ways to stall action.
With lawmakers scattered from Iraq to Australia, leaders hope to use parliamentary methods such as a voice vote rather than a roll call to pass the bills without calling back their entire memberships.
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said the outcome is clear and that it is "just how we get there." He said that if Democrats demand a roll call vote, Republicans will need to come up with 218 votes and two-thirds of the House, and he said it would be "just a matter of time" before enough of the 232 Republicans could be rounded up to do that.
The Senate met with just three senators Frist, Harkin and Rick Santorum, R-Pa., on the floor, surrounded by two dozen pages, clerks and parliamentarians. Lawmakers were scattered around the world on trips at the start of the Easter break. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called from Jerusalem at 4 a.m. Eastern time to participate in negotiations. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., also returned to the Capitol.
The Senate session was a technical matter, to adjourn so that the House could act before today, when a session was scheduled.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.