Stem Cell Research Advocates in Md. Optimistic

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 4, 2005

Advocates of spending state dollars on stem cell research in Maryland say their chances will be markedly improved in the coming legislative session, given fresh polling data about the controversial science and the pressures that come with an election year.

A bill authorizing as much as $23 million in state money for research that President Bush has restricted on the federal level died under threat of a state Senate filibuster on the final day of the General Assembly session in April.

Supporters say they will concentrate on flipping at least two votes in the Senate and swaying Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who supports building research facilities but has not committed to paying for the actual research.

Though no senators have said publicly that they are willing to change their votes, leaders of both legislative chambers said last week that they expect some form of the legislation to pass in the session that convenes next month.

"I think passage of a bill is inevitable, and the only question is what it contains," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who showed limited interest in the bill last session.

Supporters say embryonic stem cell research holds great promise for those affected by Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and other debilitating conditions. It is staunchly opposed by those who believe that the research is unethical because it involves the destruction of a human embryo.

A poll published last month by the Baltimore Sun showed 60 percent of Maryland voters favoring state funding of embryonic stem cell research, with 27 percent opposed and 13 percent not sure.

Republicans, who led the filibuster threat in the Maryland Senate, favored funding, 48 percent to 40 percent, the Sun poll found.

Former governor Harry R. Hughes, who is chairman of Maryland Families for Stem Cell Research, said he is optimistic that such numbers and a better understanding of the science will help his advocacy group pick up the necessary support in the Senate to allow a vote.

Sponsors of last session's bill said they had secured a majority of votes in the Senate. But under Senate rules, a three-fifths vote is required to cut off debate. Sponsors said they fell two votes short of that threshold on the session's final day.

Senators facing tough reelection battles next year will be among those whom supporters try to persuade, said Robert G. Johnson, a lobbyist for the stem cell advocacy group.

Sandra B. Schrader (R-Howard) cast a committee vote for the bill last session but was prepared to stand with her party on the filibuster if the legislation hit the Senate floor. She is being challenged next year by Howard County Executive James N. Robey.

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