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House Bill to Ease Stem Cell Curbs Gains Momentum

By Ceci Connolly and Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 19, 2005

Emboldened advocates of lifting current limits on embryonic stem cell research appear within reach of a breakthrough victory in the House as early as next week, a vote that would put fresh pressure on the Senate and White House to funnel significant federal money into the emerging field.

House backers of legislation that would loosen restrictions imposed by President Bush in 2001 say they have 201 co-sponsors and enough private commitments to put them at or over the 218 votes needed to pass -- a prospect that has so bitterly divided the GOP that two Republicans nearly came to blows on the House floor Monday night.

Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), a co-sponsor of the measure, said that if the vote on the bill were held today, it would pass. Nearly four years after Bush used his first nationally televised address to announce a decision limiting federal research to previously existing embryonic stem cell lines, some opponents speculate that the congressional showdown could lead to the first veto of his presidency.

But as lawmakers prepare to cast their first votes on the sensitive issue of broadening the research with taxpayer money, opponents have begun a vigorous eleventh-hour campaign to defeat the legislation. Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore condemned the legislation on Tuesday as "destructive and morally offensive."

"Government has no business forcing taxpayers to become complicit in the direct destruction of human life at any stage," wrote Keeler, chairman of the Committee for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Nor is there any point in denying the scientific fact that human life is exactly what is at stake here."

Both sides are mobilizing for the high-profile vote, with proponents using ads that invoke the words of Nancy Reagan and opponents organizing a Capitol Hill appearance by babies who were "adopted" as embryos.

The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 would permit federal money to fund research on stem cells taken from days-old embryos stored in freezers at fertility clinics and donated by couples who no longer need them. The cells show great promise in treating a variety of diseases and injuries because they are able to morph into all kinds of tissues, but they are controversial because the embryos must be destroyed to retrieve the cells.

Scientists and patient advocacy groups say the Bush policy limits federally funded work to about two dozen embryonic stem cell colonies, or lines, while scores of more promising cell lines remain off limits.

The upcoming vote has created a rare split in the Republican Party. Rep. David Joseph Weldon (R-Fla.), a physician who opposes the bill, said his moderate colleagues paid for polling in some GOP congressional districts to show that opposing the bill may not go over well with constituents.

"It doesn't get much uglier than that," he said. "My background is in science, and I know human life begins at the moment of conception."

The poll so infuriated Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) that colleagues had to pull him away from "a heated discussion" with Rep. Mark S. Kirk (R-Ill.), who supports the bill, according to Hill staff members and a report in the newspaper Roll Call.

Advocates are winning support from some antiabortion leaders with the argument that "cells in a Petri dish" that would otherwise be discarded are not comparable to a fetus that "would become a person in the normal course of events," said John C. Danforth, an ordained minister and former Republican senator who served as Bush's ambassador to the United Nations.

"There is only one argument against stem cell research, and that is meeting the demands of the religious right," he said in an interview.

James C. Greenwood, a moderate Republican who retired from Congress last year to become president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), said he is "cautiously optimistic" that, given the large number of co-sponsors, the House will pass the bill.

"There's always a fair assumption that some members don't want to have their names on the bill because they don't want to draw fire but will vote for it," he said, adding that BIO, which supports the bill "100 percent," has identified at least 218 votes for it.

If the vote is blocked -- or, as some proponents fear, the bill is modified with language they object to -- sponsors have a backup plan.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who has teamed up with Castle to push the issue, said she is prepared to attach the stem cell language to appropriations bills or legislation reauthorizing the National Institutes of Health. "They know I've got the votes," she said.

In the Senate, where Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is under pressure to schedule a floor vote on an identical bill, proponents have warned that they may have the 60 votes needed to kill a filibuster. "Whether he brings it to the floor or not, I think we're going to get it to the floor," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).

With a House vote expected before the Memorial Day weekend recess, advocates on both sides have released dueling poll results and plan a series of publicity events. Today, four physician-lawmakers will highlight treatments they say are as good as or better than those involving embryonic stem cells. Next week, parents of children who were "adopted" as embryos will lobby against the Castle-DeGette bill.

Weldon predicted Bush would veto the legislation, but Hatch and others said that is not certain. Michael Manganiello, senior vice president of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, said advocates are scrutinizing Bush's previous comments "to see if there is room for the president to allow a compromise to his initial policy."

Opponents, with the support of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), are hoping to persuade undecided Republicans to vote instead for a bill sponsored by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) that would create a national umbilical cord blood bank. Cord blood cells display some of the same traits as embryonic stem cells but are more limited in the types of tissues they can become.

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