The Maryland House of Delegates yesterday gave strong approval to a bill that calls for spending state money on embryonic stem cell research that President Bush has restricted on the federal level.
The House voted 81 to 53 to offer $23 million a year to researchers working on treatments for Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and other debilitating conditions. The vote followed an emotional debate that invoked tales of morality and personal suffering.
Majority Leader Kumar Barve said the state "cannot be left behind."
Supporters argued that the legislation would help Maryland maintain its edge in biotechnology amid similar and, in some cases, more ambitious initiatives in California and a half-dozen other states in recent years.
Opponents said Maryland would be fostering false hope by investing in research with few proven results -- research that some find objectionable because it involves extracting cells from a viable embryo.
"No research should be done at the expense of another person's life," said Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George's), who characterized the research as "treating young human beings as raw material to be destroyed in the name of science."
House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) countered that defeat of the bill would amount to "putting out the 'go-away' mat" for researchers at leading Maryland universities and private biotech companies.
"Maryland simply cannot be left behind," he said.
Barve was among 80 Democrats who voted in favor of the bill, along with one Republican, Del. Jean B. Cryor (Montgomery). Forty-two of the chamber's Republicans opposed the legislation, as did 11 Democrats.
Attention now turns to the Senate, where supporters hope the margin of yesterday's vote will provide momentum in that chamber.
Republicans and conservative Democrats have promised a rare filibuster if the bill reaches the floor, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said last night that he would like to avoid a prolonged floor fight, with just two weeks remaining in the session.
Miller did not rule out letting the legislation get to the floor, however, if it passes out of the requisite committees and it appears that supporters have enough votes to break a filibuster.
"Right now, it's like a game of bluff," Miller said of efforts to gauge Senate support.
A Senate version of the bill, which provides $25 million in annual funding, has won the approval of the chamber's health committee but must win backing from a second panel before it can move to the floor.
"The issue over here is the funding," said Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.