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Md. House Backers of Stem Cell Research Optimistic

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page B02

Supporters of a bill to fund embryonic stem cell research with state dollars predicted yesterday that they would have the votes to win passage in the Maryland House of Delegates this week.

The battle would then move to the state Senate, where conservative lawmakers are promising a filibuster if the legislation reaches the floor.

"We have reason to believe we have the votes," Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore) said at a news conference in Annapolis, where supporters of the bill introduced a new backer, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D).

Duncan, who is gearing up for a 2006 gubernatorial bid, said the legislation is "worth fighting for" to preserve Maryland's edge in the technology sector, which he said has shown signs of slippage lately. He was joined by several technology leaders and former governor Marvin Mandel (D), whose late wife suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, one of the medical conditions for which supporters say stem cell research holds promise.

The push comes at a critical juncture for the legislation, which calls for spending $25 million a year on stem cell research. Opponents argue that it is unethical because it would fund research involving the destruction of viable human embryos.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said he expects his chamber to act on the bill by the end of the week, with the first of two required House committee votes coming as early as today. Under the General Assembly's rules, the bill must clear either the House or Senate by Monday or face additional procedural hurdles that probably would lead to its demise before the legislature's scheduled April 11 adjournment.

"I think there is a majority of people who will support it, but I'm not sure," Busch said.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), the legislation's lead sponsor in the Senate, said she would await House action before trying to push the bill forward in her chamber. Among those who have voiced reservations about the bill is Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).

Hollinger, chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said she believes that there are enough votes to pass the bill out of her committee, one of two Senate panels that must sign off on the legislation for it to reach the floor.

But Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said the situation remains fluid on his panel, whose approval also is required.

"I think there's still work to be done," Currie said. "I don't think she has the votes at this point."

Maryland is one of more than a dozen states considering funding embryonic stem cell research, after President Bush's decision in 2001 to restrict federal support.

Advocates on both sides of the legislation are lobbying lawmakers heavily. Nancy Fortier of the Maryland Catholic Conference, which opposes the bill, said her organization had coordinated the sending of 1,000 e-mails over the weekend from Marylanders who believe that the bill would foster "unethical research."

"The people of Maryland don't want to see this bill passed," Fortier said. She said she sees no chance that it will get through the Senate.

The bill would present a difficult choice for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) if it reaches his desk in its current form. Although he has expressed support for Maryland's biotechnology sector, the governor would face a certain backlash from Republicans who believe that the research is morally equivalent to abortion.

A spokesman said yesterday that Ehrlich has not personally taken a position on the legislation, which one of his Cabinet agencies, the Department of Budget and Management, is opposing because of its cost.

"The governor will reserve judgment on this legislation until it reaches his desk, if it gets that far," said spokesman Henry Fawell said.

That posture was criticized yesterday by Duncan. "Leadership means taking action and proactively fighting for something you believe in, not avoiding the issue and hoping it goes away," Duncan said.

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