President Bush yesterday vetoed the first bill of his presidency, rejecting an attempt to overturn his limits on federal support for embryonic-stem-cell research and criticizing opponents in Congress who blocked an alternative measure that would have funded nonembryonic-stem-cell research.
His veto was upheld hours later when the House failed to muster the votes to overturn it. The vote was 235-193, more than 50 votes short of the two-thirds margin the Constitution requires.
“If this bill would have become law, American taxpayers would, for the first time in our history, be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos, and I’m not going to allow it,” Mr. Bush said, drawing a standing ovation from supporters in the White House East Room.
He stood in front of a group of parents holding babies that they had adopted as frozen embryos and then had them carried to term.
“These boys and girls are not spare parts,” Mr. Bush said. “They remind us that we all begin our lives as a small collection of cells. And they remind us that in our zeal for new treatments and cures, America must never abandon our fundamental morals.”
The veto means Mr. Bush’s 2001 policy remains in place. It allows federal funding for research on the stem-cell lines that existed at the time, of which there are 21 still usable, but prohibits federal funding for new lines, which require the embryos to be destroyed in the process of extracting the stem cells. Mr. Bush’s policy does not prohibit private or state funding for stem-cell research.
Opponents say the existing stem-cell lines are too limited and are contaminated in some cases and argue that the embryos would otherwise have been discarded. Some estimates say there are 400,000 frozen embryos being held in clinics.
Mr. Bush had gone longer without a veto than any other president since Thomas Jefferson, even though he has issued 141 threats against bills during his more than five years in office.
To overturn a veto, supporters needed to secure two-thirds support in both the House and Senate. Since the bill failed in the House, no vote is needed in the Senate.
Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, called the House’s vote to sustain the veto “a Luddite moment in American history, where fear triumphed over hope and ideology triumphed over science.”
Other Democrats accused Mr. Bush of politicizing science.
“I don’t know who decided they were God and that Congress could not fund this research because their religious thinking trumps the national consensus,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat and a chief sponsor of the bill.
She vowed to try again by attaching the measure as an amendment to a bigger bill and hoping Mr. Bush would be reluctant to veto the broader measure.
Democrats also vowed to make Mr. Bush and Republicans pay in this year’s elections.
“This is an issue from one end of the country to the other,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
But the president’s spokesman said he doesn’t expect the issue to hurt Republicans, and conservatives in the House said they relished the chance to uphold this veto.
“We have campaigned, with some exception, since the days of Ronald Reagan, as the party committed to the sanctity of human life. Today with [his] first-ever presidential veto, this president put feet to that pledge,” said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican.
He also dismissed critics who said Mr. Bush was playing politics or playing to his base.
“It takes about one conversation with the president of the United States, where you see a change in his countenance, a change in the tone of his voice, to know that this is not a policy issue for him, and it’s certainly not politics. It’s a matter of core moral principle,” Mr. Pence said.
Mr. Bush had hoped to couple his veto yesterday with two bill signings: one measure to ban initiating and then aborting a pregnancy for research purposes and another to fund research into adult stem cells and the blood cells from umbilical cords.
But the bill on alternatives to stem-cell research was blocked in the House on Tuesday night by a majority of House Democrats and a small group of Republicans, mostly liberals who back stem-cell research.
Republicans accused Democrats of trying to embarrass the president, and the White House lashed out at the lawmakers who blocked the bill.
Spokesman Tony Snow said the opponents were taking a “my way or the highway approach.”
Rep. Joe Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican, said the vote went back on a deal that embryonic-stem-cell research supporters had made, and he said it was hypocritical for those members who had said they supported all kinds of research to oppose it.
“In other words, they’re saying they only want to kill embryos to do the research?” he said.
But Rep. Michael N. Castle, Delaware Republican and the other chief sponsor of the vetoed bill, said he wanted the focus to fall on the embryonic-stem-cell-research bill.
“I was trying to make sure that anything that would get in the way of HR 810 would not happen,” he said.
Even though the bill failed, Mr. Bush yesterday directed his administration to see what parts it could implement anyway.
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