The House leadership has agreed to allow a floor vote on a bill that would loosen the restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research imposed by President Bush in 2001, according to members of Congress and others privy to the arrangement.
The vote, expected to take place within the next two to three months, would be the first of its kind on the politically charged topic since Bush declared much of the research off-limits to federal funding. The cells show promise as treatments for many diseases but have stirred intense controversy because they are retrieved from human embryos, which are destroyed in the process.
"We're very pleased," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), a supporter of policy change who helped broker the deal. "This is an indication they recognize the importance of this."
Supporters of the research expressed optimism that, given a chance to vote on the issue, both the House and Senate will back a modest loosening of Bush's rules.
"The education level has really risen among the general public and also among policy makers," said Lawrence Soler, a vice president with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. "I think once it gets to the floor, it will pass."
But opponents vowed a fight.
"I look forward to the opportunity to help defeat it," said Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of pro-life activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Then we can set aside this silly obsession and concentrate on things that are actually working for patients."
Bush announced his policy on Aug. 9, 2001. Saying taxpayer dollars should not be complicit in the destruction of human embryos, he declared that federal funds could be used for research only on stem cells derived from embryos already destroyed as of that date.
The compromise gained at least grudging support from research proponents as a way to get the nascent field off the ground. More than 60 colonies, or lines, of stem cells were believed to qualify at the time.
But support morphed into frustration as it became clear that far fewer colonies are available under the rule -- and that many of those may be contaminated in ways that reduce their therapeutic potential.
Support for the research appears to be growing. Last year 206 members of the House, including 31 Republicans and many opposed to abortion, signed letters asking Bush to reconsider, as did 58 senators. A survey of 1,054 adults, conducted for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and due to be released today, finds that more than two-thirds of Americans support the research.
But with opposition still vocal -- and the White House repeatedly shooting down rumors that it might expand federal support -- Congressional leaders have opted until now to avoid an up-or-down vote. A bill that would have allowed federal funds to be used more broadly, introduced last June by Castle and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), garnered more than 200 co-sponsors, but the House leadership prevented it from getting hearings or a vote.
Now that bill or a similar one may have its day on the floor.
The agreement was achieved last week after Castle and others made their case to three House leaders: Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Ohio) and Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.). The next day, Castle got the reply he had sought.
"The speaker said the leadership has met and has concluded we should move forward in some way" on his bill or something very close to it, Castle said.
An aide to Blunt confirmed the basic arrangement for a vote "in the next couple of months," but House leaders declined to discuss the matter.
DeGette credited pressure from the public: "Basically, this is a train coming down the tracks, and I think the Republican leadership is beginning to recognize that."
Some lawmakers said they are hearing from constituents who worry about a "brain drain" from their states, as researchers begin to move to California and other states that support stem cell research.
How the vote would be handled remains uncertain. Castle said he is pushing for a straight vote on the "Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act" that he and DeGette reintroduced last month, with 183 co-sponsors so far. The bill would allow researchers to use federal funds to study newer stem cell lines derived from embryos discarded by fertility clinics.
The bill includes what would be the first federal ethics rules for human embryonic stem cell research. Scientists could study only cells from embryos created for fertility treatment and donated by the parents, without compensation and with full knowledge of how the cells would be used.
The bill would not allow federal funding of research on embryos made expressly for research by cloning or any other means, a far more contentious issue.
"People used to think it was about aborted fetuses and embryos being created for research. Once they find out it's about embryos from IVF [in vitro fertilization] clinics that are going to be discarded anyway, they realize it is almost an absurd position to . . . oppose this research," DeGette said.
But House sources emphasized that no promises have been made to prevent the leadership from altering the bill in a way that would make it less attractive to stem cell supporters -- or from even replacing it with a new bill. "That decision is with the speaker right now," said Burson Taylor, a spokeswoman for Blunt.
Many Hill watchers believe the votes are there to pass the Senate version, introduced by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) -- if it ever gets to the floor. That will require a nod from Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a physician and possible 2008 presidential candidate who has sought to be a peacemaker in the stem cell debate.
Frist spokesman Nick Smith said no decision has been made, but Specter said that if the House passes the bill, Frist "would be likely to allow a vote on it."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said yesterday that Bush has not changed his mind. "President Bush implemented a policy that allows for federal funding of embryo stem cell research for the first time, and it does so in a way that does not cross an important moral line," she said. "He also supports adult stem cell research, which is showing great promise."
Staff writers Ceci Connolly and Peter Baker contributed to this report.