Sunday, August 28, 2005

Stem-cell research and cloning developments likely will be heated topics of conversation in the Senate this fall, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist — who now wants to expand President Bush’s embryonic stem-cell policy — will continue to push for a debate and a vote this year.

“There’ll be a lot of discussion on where we go from here,” said Amy Call, spokeswoman for Mr. Frist, Tennessee Republican. “The leader is interested in having a stem-cell debate on the floor sometime in the fall.”

Mr. Frist made waves just before the August break when he threw his support behind a House-passed bill — backed in the Senate by Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican — that would allow federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research that uses leftover embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics. Mr. Bush has threatened to veto the bill because it expands his 2001 policy, which limited federal funding of such research to embryonic stem-cell lines already in existence at that time.

Also this month, Harvard researchers announced in Science magazine that they had created cells similar to embryonic stem cells by fusing human skin cells with existing embryonic stem cells — a process that avoided the contentious act of creating and destroying a human embryo.

It also was widely reported this month that cloned wildcats at the Audubon Nature Institute had given birth to kittens, and that Seoul University researchers had created the world’s first cloned dog.

These developments likely will produce lively discussions this fall, as will Mr. Frist’s support of Mr. Specter’s bill.

Already, opponents of human embryonic stem-cell research say the Harvard research proves that promise lies not in destroying embryos but in other less-contentious methods that could be just as effective.

“He’s been proven right,” one conservative lobbyist said of Mr. Bush. “As time moves on, more ethical and successful methods … are taking place.”

But Daniel Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research — a top advocate of Mr. Specter’s bill — said even the Harvard researchers admit their technique is far from proven. He doesn’t think senators will see it as a reason to limit embryonic stem-cell research or to back away from Mr. Specter’s bill, which he said has more than enough votes to pass.

“Legislators recognize we don’t make law based on a single story in Science,” Mr. Perry said.

While the Supreme Court nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. and other issues will consume much of the Senate’s time this fall, advocates on both sides of the stem-cell issue expect senators will vote on a bill this year.

Mr. Perry said that within the year, “President Bush is going to have to have a moment of truth” on whether to veto Mr. Specter’s bill, which has bipartisan support.

Mrs. Call said Mr. Frist wants the Senate to debate not only that bill, but a number of other research-related bills, including a ban on all forms of human cloning being pushed by Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican.

But Mr. Frist floated that same multi-bill setup for weeks this summer and couldn’t get senators to agree to it. Mrs. Call would not say whether Mr. Frist would bring Mr. Specter’s bill to the floor by itself if an agreement still cannot be reached. “He’s going to talk to all his colleagues about the best way to move forward,” she said.

Supporters of Mr. Specter’s bill have said they may try to force it as an amendment on a must-pass Senate spending bill if they can’t get a straight vote. But a top Senate Republican aide noted that if the Specter bill reaches the floor in any manner, all of the research-related bills will end up being debated because their backers will push them as amendments.

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