With a furious legal and political battle raging outside her hospice room, doctors removed Terri Schiavo's feeding tube today after an unprecedented attempt by Congress to keep the brain-damaged woman alive was rebuffed.

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PINELLAS PARK, Fla. — With a furious legal and political battle raging outside her hospice room, doctors removed Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube today after an unprecedented attempt by Congress to keep the brain-damaged woman alive was rebuffed.

Schiavo, 41, could take more than a week to die, provided no one intercedes and gets the tube reinserted — as happened twice before.

The move came after Republicans on Capitol Hill used their subpoena power to try demand that Schiavo be brought before a congressional hearing, saying removing the tube amounted to “barbarism.” The attorney for Schiavo’s husband shot back at a news conference, calling the subpoenas “nothing short of thuggery.”

“It was odious, it was shocking, it was disgusting and I think all Americans should be very alarmed about that,” George Felos said.

The judge presiding over the case ruled in the husband’s favor early this afternoon and rejected the request from House attorneys to delay the removal, which he had previously ordered to take place at 1 p.m. EST. Felos said Michael Schiavo was at his wife’s side shortly after the tube was disconnected.

The removal of the tube signals that an end may be near in a decade-long family feud between Schiavo’s husband and her devoutly Roman Catholic parents, Bob and Mary Schindler. The parents have been trying to oust Michael Schiavo as their daughter’s guardian and keep in place the tube that has kept her alive for more than 15 years.

Michael Schiavo says his wife told him she would not want to be kept alive artificially. Her parents dispute that, saying she could get better and that their daughter has laughed, cried, smiled and responded to their voices. Court-appointed physicians testified her brain damage was so severe that there was no hope she would ever have any cognitive abilities.

The family is still hoping for a long-shot legal victory to have the tube re-inserted.

Several right-to-die cases across the nation have been fought in the courts in recent years, but few, if any, have been this drawn-out and bitter.

The case has garnered attention around the world and served as a rallying cry for conservative Christian groups and anti-abortion activists, who flooded members of Congress and Florida legislators with messages seeking to keep Schiavo alive.

Outside Schiavo’s hospice, about 30 people keeping vigil dropped to their knees in prayer when word spread of the judge’s ruling calling for removal of the tube.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush discussed the case with his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and members of the state’s congressional delegation during his swing through Florida today to discuss Social Security reform.

“We’re continuing to monitor developments,” McClellan said. “The president believes when there are serious questions or doubts in a case like this that the presumption ought to be in favor of life.”

Gov. Jeb Bush said the judge’s decision “breaks my heart” and noted that it often takes two decades for a death row inmate’s appeals to go through the system.

“There’s this rush to starve her to death,” Bush said of Terri Schiavo.

But Rep. Henry Waxman of California, senior Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, called the subpoenas a “flagrant abuse of power” and said they amounted to Congress dictating the medical care Terri Schiavo should receive.

“Congress is turning the Schiavo family’s personal tragedy into a national political farce,” Waxman said.

Schiavo suffered severe brain damage in 1990 when a chemical imbalance apparently brought on by an eating disorder caused her heart to stop beating for a few minutes. She can breathe on her own, but has relied on the feeding and hydration tube to keep her alive.

Both sides accused each other of being motivated by greed over a $1 million medical malpractice award from doctors who failed to diagnose the chemical imbalance.

The Schindlers also said that Michael Schiavo wants their daughter dead so he can marry his longtime girlfriend, with whom he has young children. They have begged him to divorce their daughter, and let them care for her.

The tangled case has encompassed at least 19 judges in at least six different courts.

In 2001, Schiavo went without food and water for two days before a judge ordered the tube reinserted when a new witness surfaced.

When the tube was removed in October 2003, her parents and two siblings frantically sought intervention from Gov. Jeb Bush to stop her slow starvation. The governor pushed through “Terri’s Law,” and six days later the tube was reinserted.

That set off a new round of legal battles which culminated in September 2004 with the Florida Supreme Court ruling that Bush had overstepped his authority and declared the law unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court has been unwilling to hear arguments in the case.

On Feb. 25, Circuit Judge George Greer gave Michael Schiavo permission to order the removal of the feeding tube today.

“I have had no cogent reason why the (congressional) committee should intervene,” Greer told attorneys in a conference call today, adding that last-minute action by Congress does not invalidate years of court rulings.

In Tallahassee, the Florida House on Thursday passed a bill to block the withholding of food and water from patients in a persistent vegetative state who did not leave specific instructions on their care. Hours later, however, the Senate defeated a different measure 21-16.

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