Monday, April 9, 2007

The White House’s endorsement last week of a Republican-crafted stem-cell research bill that its authors say doesn’t promote the destruction of embryos could doom a more liberal version for the second consecutive year.

The Democratic bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, proposed to expand funding for researching all new lines of human embryonic stem cells, regardless of their age.

Proponents say the Nevada Democrat’s bill could jump-start research that potentially could save millions of lives, while critics say it’s an unethical and immoral use of government money.

President Bush has promised to veto it.

But Republican Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Johnny Isakson of Georgia have drafted what they say is a compromise bill that skirts the moral and ethical dilemma of destroying human embryos for research.

With the administration’s endorsement, some Republicans who may have considered supporting Mr. Reid’s bill could throw their support to the alternative bill, said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

“It seems to be you have two options: one bill that will get vetoed and one that has a chance to pass into law,” Mr. Stewart said. “I think the choice is easy.”

Mr. Reid’s bill appears to have at least 60 supporters. But whether it has the required 67 votes to override a veto is uncertain.

Mr. Stewart said late last week that it was too early to estimate how many votes each bill will receive. But he added that the White House’s endorsement of the Coleman-Isakson bill has damaged the Democratic version’s chances.

“The [Coleman-Isakson] bill certainly is a much more viable option than a bill that won’t get signed,” Mr. Stewart said.

The Republican bill would allow scientists to conduct research on embryos that 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 last week. “I’m very optimistic it will be looked on favorably, especially with the White House endorsement.”

But a spokesman for Mr. Reid said the administration’s endorsement of the Coleman-Isakson will have “absolutely no effect” on the outcome of the vote.

Mr. Reid’s “bill is the only bill that provides real hope to patients,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

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

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.

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.

Mr. Bush used his veto pen for the first time of his presidency last year to reject a Democratic 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.

Polls have shown that more than 70 percent of Americans support public financing of embryonic stem-cell research.

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