House Defies Bush on Stem Cells

By Mike Allen and Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Defying President Bush's threat to impose his first veto, a broad swath of House Republicans voted with an overwhelming number of Democrats yesterday to repeal his restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and plunge the government deeper into the controversial science that supporters say could lead to cures for debilitating diseases.

The 238 to 194 vote, unusual because 50 Republicans broke with Bush and top House leaders, followed a highly personalized, occasionally tearful debate in which a parade of lawmakers recounted medical tragedies that had afflicted their families, while opponents contended that the science is built on destroying human lives.

The legislation, which has strong support in the Senate, would make federal money available for research on embryonic stem cells extracted from frozen embryos donated by couples who no longer need them for fertility treatments. It would lift a restriction imposed by Bush nearly four years ago that limits federally funded research to fewer than two dozen embryonic stem cell colonies, or lines.

The president and other opponents focused on the fact that the embryos are destroyed in obtaining the cells. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) called it a "vote to fund with taxpayer dollars the dismemberment of living, distinct human beings for the purposes of medical experimentation."

"The best that can be said about embryonic stem cell research is that it is scientific exploration into the potential benefits of killing human beings," said DeLay, who set up pro-adoption posters as a backdrop. DeLay, who had lowered his profile amid the storm over his travel and dealings with lobbyists, spent the afternoon on the House floor leading opposition to the bill.

The vote carried an echo of Monday's Senate deal that averted a showdown over Bush's judicial appointments, with moderate lawmakers working across the aisle to triumph over their party leaders. The stem cell bill, which was opposed by 14 Democrats, was sponsored by Rep. Michael N. Castle (Del.), president of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership, and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who spent two years building a winning coalition. House leaders scheduled yesterday's vote so that the contentious issue would not be raised repeatedly as an amendment to other critical bills.

Bush said last week that he would veto the bill. With the debate underway at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, he underscored his opposition by holding an East Room ceremony surrounded by children whose families had adopted them as embryos. The same families had appeared several hours earlier on Capitol Hill, with parents and children alike sporting stickers that said "Former Embryo."

"This bill would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life," Bush said. "Crossing this line would be a great mistake."

Polls have shown that the public is strongly supportive of the research, and Nancy Reagan's backing made the issue politically palatable for many conservatives.

When Bush announced his decision in August 2001 to permit federal funding for the first time for research using a small number of embryonic stem cell lines, the White House estimated scientists would have a choice of more than 60 cell lines on which to conduct federally supported research. But just 22 lines have materialized, and all of them have been grown in laboratory dishes on layers of mouse cells, making them less than ideal for use in human experiments.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who was among the one-third of Republican committee chairmen who supported the bill, said the loss of his father to diabetes at age 71 and a brother to liver disease at 44 had shaped his decision to support expanded research.

And Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.) described his own struggle with Parkinson's, saying the disease that is destroying his nerve cells "doesn't keep me from doing the things that are important to me" but does affect every day of his life. "Only embryonic stem cells hold enormous potential to turn into any cell in the body" and potentially offer him a cure, he said.

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