Congressional supporters of human embryonic stem cell research launched their most intensive effort to expand federal funding for the controversial field, introducing identical bills yesterday in the Senate and House that would loosen research restrictions President Bush imposed in 2001.
Invoking the names of Ronald Reagan and actor Christopher Reeve -- both of whom died last year from conditions that supporters say may someday be tamed with stem cell therapies -- members of Congress representing a wide spectrum of political sensibilities called for change.
"I firmly believe that embryonic stem cell research is the greatest medical hope of the 21st century," Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) said at a Capitol Hill news conference.
The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 represents the second major push in as many years to change the federal rules. Embryonic stem cells appear capable of rebuilding ailing organs but are mired in controversy because 5-day-old human embryos must be destroyed to retrieve them.
Under current policy, federal money may be used to study only colonies of stem cells derived from embryos destroyed before Aug. 9, 2001. That has kept the vast federal science enterprise from exploring the potential of newer colonies that appear to have advantages over older ones.
The new bill would allow federally funded researchers to derive fresh colonies of stem cells from spare embryos that are about to be discarded by fertility clinics, if parents agree to offer them for research. It would not allow taxpayer money to be used to create embryos by cloning or other means -- practices far more politically divisive than using spare embryos.
The issue of stem cell research has polarized Congress, with insufficient majorities available to either loosen Bush's restrictions or tighten them.
Hill watchers said it is still too early to say whether that stalemate will be broken this year. With Republicans having won several new seats in November, advocates of greater restrictions -- led by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) -- have expressed optimism that they may prevail. A spokesman for Brownback said only that the senator is still studying the language.
Research advocates say they, too, feel more energized than ever. With California and a handful of other states moving to finance embryonic cell research on their own and a new public opinion poll on Tuesday suggesting that at least three-quarters of Americans support the research, lawmakers and others said yesterday that they believe the tide is turning in their favor.
"There is sort of a Wild West effect going on right now, with states passing initiatives, private funding going on and a lot of this research going offshore," said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who with Castle has led the charge in the House. "The result is there is no ethical control over the research and no coordination going on. Policymakers are now realizing we've got to get a grip on the research."
Lawrence Soler, a vice president with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, said it is significant that the new bill is starting out with 160 co-sponsors, far more than the few dozen last year. "I think there now is a clear majority of support in the House and Senate," he said.
But with the House leadership opposed, others said, the hardest part may be getting the bill to the floor. Some strategists expect to see the pro-stem-cell bill tacked onto a larger bill later this year.