Stem Cell Bill Advances in House

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006

Democrats in the Maryland House of Delegates yesterday turned back several Republican attempts to alter a bill that would provide state money for stem cell research, clearing the way for passage by the end of the week.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), meanwhile, said his chamber will probably wait until next week to start floor debate on its version of the bill, which faces a filibuster threat from Republican senators.

During nearly two hours of debate in the House, Republicans sought unsuccessfully to remove provisions that give preference to projects involving embryonic stem cells and that mandate spending $25 million a year on the science into the indefinite future.

House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell argued that the state should let grant proposals "compete on their merits," regardless of whether the research uses embryonic stem cells or the less controversial adult stem cells.

Both lines of research have shown promise for treatment of a range of debilitating diseases. But O'Donnell and other conservatives object to embryonic work because it involves the destruction of a human embryo.

"That's a problem for many of us," O'Donnell (R-Calvert) told his colleagues.

Del. Peter A. Hammen, chairman of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, said the preference for embryonic work is justified because President Bush has restricted federal spending on the science. Funding for work with adult stem cells, which are derived from a variety of sources, including bone marrow, is far more plentiful, he said.

"We do not want to duplicate what is already funded at the federal level," said Hammen (D-Baltimore). "That's why this bill is here."

He said "dazzling" projects using adult stem cells might well receive state money, however.

O'Donnell's amendment removing the funding preference for research involving embryonic stem cells was voted down, 83 to 53. Another measure that would have removed the funding commitment in the bill was later voted down, 87 to 48.

"Simply put, we can't afford this bill," argued Del. Herbert H. McMillan (R-Anne Arundel), sponsor of that amendment.

Under his amendment, it would be left to the governor to propose a spending level for the research each year. A Senate committee has already adopted a similar provision in its version of the legislation.

But leading House Democrats argued yesterday that the spending mandate would reassure researchers who are considering leaving Maryland that the state is committed to the research.

"I think it's a small price to pay for the potential cures that can come about," Hammen argued.

Three other Republican amendments were also voted down, largely along party lines.

The legislation is expected to return to the House floor tomorrow. The House passed a similar bill last year that earmarked $23 million annually for work on embryonic stem cells. That measure died in the Senate in the face of a threatened filibuster.

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