Stem Cell Hope . . .

By David S. Broder
Sunday, May 22, 2005

At a time of bitter conflict in Washington, it is remarkable that this week the House of Representatives may witness a rare victory by a bipartisan moderate coalition on a major social issue.

Backers of a bill to ease some of the restrictions that President Bush has placed on government-financed embryonic stem cell research say they have been promised a vote on Wednesday or Thursday. Speculation favors passage, but opponents are mounting a last-ditch effort to derail the measure. On Friday, Bush threatened to veto it if it reaches his desk.

It is rare that any bill that originates on the Democratic side of the House ever comes to a vote. The Republican leadership sets the agenda and has the power, under House rules, to exclude measures it has not endorsed.

But Rep. Diana DeGette, a fifth-term Democrat from Denver, fought doggedly against the odds and lobbied every member on her side of the aisle to support the cause. More important, she found an ally in Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, who in his seventh term has emerged as the shrewdest politician among the small band of Republican moderates.

Together they mobilized nearly a majority of the House to sign letters last year urging Bush to allow federally financed research on more than the few "lines" of stem cells that were available to scientists when Bush issued his executive order on the subject back in 2001. Bush said that any embryonic cells that became available after his order came out could not be used for government-financed research.

Scientists and such prominent advocates as Nancy Reagan argue that embryonic stem cells offer the greatest promise of providing clues -- and perhaps eventually cures -- for such debilitating diseases as Alzheimer's, diabetes and Lou Gehrig's disease. Right-to-life groups, however, regard the destruction of embryos to harvest the cells as akin to taking life.

DeGette and Castle deliberately framed their bill so as to minimize opposition. It would permit research only on the estimated 8,000 embryos that already are discarded each year as unneeded surplus by in vitro fertilization clinics around the country.

It would require informed consent by the donors and ban any buying or selling of the embryos. And, the sponsors say, it includes clear ethical guidelines for all such research -- something that the government does not now provide.

But the merits of the bill would have been irrelevant had not Castle and his fellow Republican moderate, Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois, figured out how to maneuver the measure onto the House calendar.

Along with a half-dozen like-minded Republicans, they made their case at an opportune moment last month to House Speaker Denny Hastert. The leadership was about to bring the budget resolution to the floor, and, with hard-core conservatives vowing to vote against it because of the spending levels it endorsed, Hastert needed the moderates to stay in line.

The very next day, the speaker -- specifying that it was not a quid pro quo for budget votes -- told Castle and Kirk that the stem cell bill would soon be on the House calendar. Further, he let them know that the leadership would not "whip" on the issue but would tell Republicans to vote as they pleased. Castle said that Hastert asked only that if the bill failed on a straight up-or-down test, the sponsors not try to revive it this year as an amendment to other legislation.

The measure still faces strong conservative opposition. Anti-abortion groups have announced they will count it on their scorecards for the session. Rep. Mike Pence, the Indiana Republican who heads a caucus of conservatives, has declared he will try to defeat the bill, and he has the backing of Majority Leader Tom DeLay. But Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, another member of the leadership, is supporting the bill.

Castle told me that he thinks as many as 40 Republicans will join the great majority of Democrats backing the measure. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center on the People and the Press found growing public support for such research. Democrats polled were solidly in support, while Republicans were split -- just as they are in Congress.

Even before Bush's veto threat, Castle said, "We still have a succession of mountains to climb." But it is rare that initiatives with such parentage make it even this far.

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