- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2008

On some policy issues, the presidential election just won’t matter - both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain are prepared to overturn President Bush’s policy and expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, one of a series of contentious issues pushed out of the presidential debate because those at the top of the tickets agree.

Both men have voted repeatedly against Mr. Bush’s stem cell policy, which severely restricts funding to the lines that existed in 2001, and have said on the campaign trail they would expand federal funding if given the chance.

“We are thrilled that we are looking forward to a president that is in favor of embryonic stem cell research,” said Amy Rick, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. “We know that both Senators McCain and Obama voted twice for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which was vetoed twice by Bush.”

Stem cell research isn’t the only contentious issue that finds both men in general agreement. Many of the biggest fights of the Bush tenure, from immigration and global warming to drilling for oil, also are off the table because both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain want to legalize most illegal immigrants, support mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions and oppose drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

On each of those issues, Mr. McCain has tacked to the left, adopting the traditionally liberal position. Mr. Obama, though, has swerved to the right on Afghanistan so that both men are calling for expanding troop deployments to that nation.

The stem cell issue stands out, however, particularly because the only thing blocking expanded federal funding right now is Mr. Bush, who wrote the limited-funding policy as an executive order in 2001 and twice has vetoed congressional efforts to expand funding.

His policy restricts federal research to the stem cell lines already in existence in 2001 - emphasizing that no new human embryos should be destroyed to create new lines.

Ms. Rick said the policy could be reversed by the next president through executive order, without a prolonged public debate or even the need to go to Congress.

“This is an issue that I know the majority of Americans are in favor of, and for the people who follow this issue and who advocate on it, both of their positions are very well known and understood, and they’re fairly straightforward positions,” she said of the presidential candidates.

Mr. McCain has used his proposal on global warming during the campaign as a demonstration of independence from Mr. Bush, but Mr. Obama’s campaign says Mr. McCain’s rhetoric isn’t always matched by his voting record on that and the other issues.

“While Senator McCain´s rhetoric on the issue diverges form that of most of his party, unfortunately, his record mostly does not,” said Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan. “Senator McCain has repeatedly supported policies that would enrich big oil while opposing those that would help us grow the alternative energy economy.”

With Mr. McCain tacking to the liberal side on many of these issues, some conservatives grumble that they’re the ones being shut out of the presidential discussion.

The Republican’s waffling last week on tax increases for Social Security - he says he opposes them personally but is open to them in order to get Democrats to the negotiating table - was worrisome to many, including the free-market Club for Growth, which fired off a letter telling Mr. McCain to clear up the confusion.

Others, though, see reasons for hope, both that Mr. McCain will draw contrasts on the issues on which he sides with conservatives and that he might end up changing his mind on stem cell research. The feeling stems in part from a meeting social conservative leaders in Ohio held with Mr. McCain late last month, when Dr. Jack Wilke, a pro-life movement leader, made a case for him to change his position on federal research funding.

Dr. Wilke argued that embryonic stem cell research is a false hope and that money is better spent on other areas that are less morally contentious.

“[McCain] took extensive notes; he listened intently to what [Dr. Wilke] was saying; and when he was done, he didn’t hesitate to ask for all the research,” said Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values, an Ohio-based group. “It was only a month ago he got all this information. I didn’t expect him to change his mind overnight. My gut feeling, and this is strictly an opinion, is he has all the reasons to reverse himself.”

Mr. Burress said the politics of the situation might make it impossible for Mr. McCain to reverse himself during the campaign - “the left and the left media will immediately pounce on him as pandering to the right and flip-flopping” - but he said once in office he thinks the research showing research options other than embryonic stem cells will be convincing to Mr. McCain.

Mr. McCain’s campaign spokesman Brian Rogers last week reaffirmed that Mr. McCain still supports expanded federal funding, though with “clear lines … drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress.”

Mr. Rogers said Mr. McCain also supports the other alternatives embryonic stem cell research opponents say have more promise, such as amniotic fluid and adult stem cell research, and said, “He believes that recent scientific breakthroughs raise the hope that one day this debate will be rendered academic.”

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