Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Senate yesterday defied President Bush and overwhelmingly approved a bill to allow federal funding of stem-cell research using embryos left over from fertility clinics, setting up a political showdown with Mr. Bush, who has vowed to veto it.

The House-passed bill — which the Senate passed yesterday on a 63-37 vote with 19 Republicans supporting it — would essentially overturn the embryonic-stem-cell research policy that Mr. Bush set in 2001, when he allowed federal funding to go to such research, but limited it to embryonic-stem-cell lines already created at that time.

“With this showing today, it is my hope that the president will listen to … 63 percent of the United States Senate,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and main sponsor of the bill. He said it “can save so many lives” if these leftover embryos are dedicated to research instead of being thrown away.

Mr. Bush is expected to veto the bill today, and the House is expected to try but fail to override that veto as soon as tonight.

Senators such as Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican, and Democrats Tom Harkin of Iowa and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts joined Mr. Specter in urging Mr. Bush to change his mind.

“If he vetoes it, we will be back on it again first thing next year,” Mr. Harkin said.

Democrats, some Republicans and many scientists have been pushing for years to expand federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research, arguing that there aren’t enough stem-cell lines covered under the Bush policy to conduct the research, with only about 20 lines now eligible.

Backers of the bill say embryonic stem cells may hold the key to curing numerous diseases and ailments, because they can develop into virtually any cell in the body. Opponents say that it’s immoral to destroy human embryos, no matter how good the cause.

“A human embryo is a human life,” Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, said yesterday. “Neither Congress nor independent researchers … should be allowed to, in effect, play God.”

But some senators who are pro-life on such matters as abortion and euthanasia support the bill.

“I believe we are aiding the living, which is one of the most pro-life positions you can take,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican. Mr. Hatch yesterday suggested that as a possible middle-ground solution that Mr. Bush could allow the government to conduct research on embryonic-stem-cell lines that have been already created by the private sector — thereby avoiding use of federal money to do actual harm to embryos.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat and possible 2008 presidential contender, warned that it would be “a serious mistake” for Mr. Bush to veto the bill, and that many Americans “believe that this holds promise for their lives.”

Democrats are planning to use the issue as political fodder in numerous election races across the country. A memo sent to Senate Democrats on Monday from the Senate Democratic Communications Center said that “vast majorities” support the bill and that if Mr. Bush vetoes it, “it will be clearer than ever before to the American people that it’s time for a New Direction.”

The memo sited surveys of strong public support for the bill from states with key midterm races, including Missouri, New Jersey, Kansas and Michigan.

But the American Conservative Union also applied pressure, sending out an “action alert” e-mail yesterday, telling its grass-roots supporters to call the White House and urge Mr. Bush to stick to his veto threat.

The Senate also approved yesterday two other research-related bills that were supported by many of the same conservatives who opposed the main measure. One bill, approved 100-0, would encourage alternative methods of stem-cell research that don’t harm embryos. The second, approved 100-0, would make it illegal to initiate and then abort human pregnancies in women or animals to obtain research tissue.

The House also approved the latter bill yesterday, 425-0. But in a surprising wrinkle, House Republicans failed to get the two-thirds margin needed to approve the alternative-research bill under a rule that allows for prompt passage, with the bill getting just a 273-154 majority.

House Republican leaders quickly tried to get the Rules Committee to let them bring the bill to the floor for a vote today under a rule that would require only a majority vote to pass, Republican aides said. But late last night, a top House Republican aide said the alternative-research bill won’t be coming to the floor today and that Mr. Bush will just sign the other research-related bill today.

The original plan was to have Mr. Bush sign both research-related bills today.

Democratic critics have said the two extra research bills were meant to be political cover for Mr. Bush and conservatives.

Earlier in the day, White House spokesman Tony Snow complained that the two extra bills are being overlooked and that Mr. Bush would sign them. He reiterated that Mr. Bush will veto the third bill because “he doesn’t want human life destroyed.”

Congressional opponents of the main stem-cell bill agreed, saying yesterday that it’s not only wrong to destroy embryos, it’s also unnecessary. They pointed out that embryonic-stem-cell research has produced no human treatments so far, while adult stem cells are producing real treatments, a fact that often gets overlooked.

“Adult [stem-cell research] and cord blood is working; embryonic is failing,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, adding that he doesn’t much care about the political ramifications of yesterday’s stem-cell bill. “I’m much more concerned with what this says about the Republic and how we view human life.”

Francisco Silva, vice president of research and development at California-based PrimeCell Therapeutics, said the alternative research bill would encourage work that his company is doing. PrimeCell scientists have taken adult cells from testicles and ovaries and reprogrammed them into brain, bone and heart cells. Mr. Silva said this has “tremendous potential” and deserves to get “more attention.”

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