A bill to fund embryonic stem cell research with state money neared passage yesterday in the Maryland House of Delegates, as the Democrat-led chamber turned back several attempts to alter one of the more divisive pieces of legislation being considered by lawmakers this year.
"The votes today clearly show we've got a constitutional majority in the House," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), the bill's lead sponsor, after a series of efforts to expand the kind of research eligible for state funding and include more explicit prohibitions against human cloning, which supporters said were unnecessary.
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A final House vote on the bill, which would offer $23 million a year to Maryland researchers starting in 2007, is scheduled for tomorrow. Attention then will turn to the Senate, where lawmakers who object to the research on ethical grounds are plotting a filibuster of similar legislation that offers $25 million in annual funding.
The House debate came toward the end of a marathon floor session yesterday geared toward meeting tomorrow's deadline for bills to have passed at least one of the two chambers.
Other House action included the rejection of a package of medical malpractice measures endorsed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and preliminary approval of bills that would provide public financing for legislative campaigns, study the provision of paper receipts from electronic voting machines and establish a financing plan for the proposed intercounty connector, an 18-mile highway that would link Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
With the stem cell bill, Maryland lawmakers are attempting to follow the lead of California and other states that have moved to fund research that President Bush restricted on the federal level in 2001. Advocates tout the promise such research offers for the treatment of debilitating conditions including Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and diabetes. They also say the investment would help Maryland maintain its edge in the biotechnology sector.
Opponents argue that the research has yet to show concrete results, and they object to the destruction of viable human embryos required by the research.
"The elephant in the room is the abortion question," said Del. Michael D. Smigiel (R-Cecil), one of the lawmakers who tried unsuccessfully to alter the bill yesterday.
Del. John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery) and other proponents of the bill emphasized that it has been drafted so that only discarded embryos from fertility clinics could be used for state-funded research.
Among the amendments that failed yesterday was one that would have allowed research using adult stem cells to be eligible for state grants as well. The use of adult cells, and of cells derived from umbilical cords, is less controversial and also has shown great promise in treating diseases, supporters argued.
Hurson, chairman of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, countered that federal funding is available for that research and therefore does not need to be included in the legislation.
While Democrats have led the push for House passage, the stem cell fight does not break cleanly along partisan lines. Some conservative Democrats in the Senate have pledged their support for a GOP-led filibuster, and Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore) was among those who voiced ethical reservations during yesterday's debate.
"What we're doing now, again, is trying to decide where and when life starts," Anderson said. "There are some in this room who believe that life does begin at a certain point."
The bill could pose a difficult choice for Ehrlich if it reaches his desk. He has pledged support of the state's biotech industry, which favors the bill, but would face a backlash among antiabortion Republicans if he signs the bill.
In separate action yesterday, the House refused to embrace a package of Ehrlich's proposals that would make changes in medical malpractice payments. Ehrlich introduced the measures following the legislature's special session in December, arguing that lawmakers did too little to address escalating jury awards.
Ehrlich's measures were introduced yesterday by GOP leaders as an amendment to a more modest bill on medical malpractice. The underlying bill, which is scheduled for a final vote tomorrow, would expand legal protections for doctors who apologize to their patients, among other provisions. A task force would be formed to study other changes.
Ehrlich's proposals would go much further in curbing payments to plaintiffs for medical expenses and lost wages.
"We're trying to move the ball down the court," said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery). "This amendment is the equivalent of taking the ball and heaving it into the stands."
"Sometimes you've got to throw the long ball to win the game," countered House Minority Leader George C. Edwards (R-Garrett).
Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.