Thursday, April 5, 2007

The White House yesterday signaled support for legislation that provides federal funding for stem-cell research using embryonic cells that have no chance of surviving.

The legislation, authored by Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, seeks a middle ground in the highly charged debate over stem-cell research. His bill skirts moral concerns over using embryonic stem cells while ensuring federal funding for the breakthrough science.

Mr. Isakson’s bill would allow scientists to conduct research on embryos they determine are incapable of surviving in the womb but whose stem cells are still viable for research. The bill would also allow funding for research on stem cells from embryos that have died during fertility treatments.

“This legislation threads the ethical needle,” Mr. Isakson said yesterday. “I’m very optimistic it will be looked on favorably, especially with the White House’s endorsement.”

White House officials have met with Mr. Isakson to discuss his bill several times since January.

“We are very supportive” of the legislation, said Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman. “By intensifying support for non-destructive alternatives, we can advance medical research in valuable ways while respecting ethical boundaries.”

Mr. Fratto said there is “no question” President Bush would veto the stem-cell legislation Congress approved last year, which is scheduled for a vote along with Mr. Isakson’s bill in the Senate early next week.

Mr. Bush used his veto pen for the only time of his presidency last year to reject a bill providing federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. The president said taxpayers should not support research on embryos at fertility clinics, even if the embryos would otherwise be destroyed.

Mr. Bush announced during the first year of his presidency that the White House would allow federal funding only for research on about 60 stem-cell lines that existed at the time.

The new Democratic Congress might be able to muster enough votes to override another veto of last year’s stem-cell legislation. Last year’s bill passed the Senate with 63 votes and passed the House with 253 votes. Overriding a presidential veto requires a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber; 67 votes in the Senate and 290 in the House.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, contends that last year’s stem-cell bill is the only version “that provides real hope to patients,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley yesterday.

The stem-cell issue has split the Republican Party, with Mr. Bush siding with the Catholic Church and social conservatives against the party’s moderate voices.

The Senate will begin debate on the bills on Tuesday. Under Senate rules, each bill will require 60 votes to pass, and no amendments will be allowed.

Mr. Isakson said he has been in the “educating process” with senators for the past six weeks and is confident his bill can get the 60 votes it needs to pass.

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