Md. Stem Cell Bill Heads for Vote
Thursday, March 9, 2006
A bill that would allow Maryland to subsidize stem cell research took an important step forward yesterday as Democrats in the state Senate voted to end a dramatic five-hour filibuster led by lawmakers opposed to the legislation on moral grounds.
But the measure that the Senate could approve as early as today is far less expansive than the version approved in the House of Delegates last week, and the differences may need be reconciled before the legislation moves to the governor's desk.
The House bill, for example, would mandate spending $25 million a year on the science, while the Senate version would leave it to future governors to propose how much to spend.
Nevertheless, supporters in the Senate hailed yesterday's breakthrough, suggesting that the limited legislation may be all they can steer through the more socially conservative chamber this year.
"This is a bill about life. It is a bill about saving lives," Sen. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), the chief sponsor, said at the outset of a debate in which many lawmakers shared personal stories of spouses and relatives suffering from Parkinson's disease, juvenile diabetes and other debilitating conditions for which stem cell research is said to hold promise.
Republicans and conservative Democrats argued passionately against research that uses embryonic stem cells. They consider it tantamount to abortion because it involves the destruction of a human embryo.
Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) spoke for nearly 90 minutes straight, pausing only to sip from a plastic foam cup. By noon, two hours into the filibuster, many senators had retreated to a lounge off the floor while their colleagues held forth at length. One read extended excerpts from a court case. Another read from a journal detailing a case of stem cell fraud. Another read newspaper stories aloud.
Supporters and opponents alike had said the filibuster could drag on for days. Two attempts to shut down debate fell one vote short.
The turning point came yesterday afternoon, when a deal was struck to remove a provision in the bill that gives preference to funding of embryonic stem cell projects.
As amended, the bill could make it easier for some projects using adult stem cells to receive funding. Adult stem cells are derived from a variety of sources, including bone marrow, and do not generate the same controversy as embryonic cells. President Bush issued an executive order in 2001 restricting federal money for work on embryonic cells, which has prompted a growing number of states to consider funding the research to retain university and corporate researchers.
The compromise was proposed by Sen. Roy P. Dyson (St. Mary's), one of five Democrats who had sided with Republicans in earlier votes that allowed the filibuster to continue. Dyson, a Catholic who opposed a similar bill last year, had been under great pressure from both sides in recent days. He also succeeded in adding an amendment that would add bioethicists from the religious community to a commission that will review grants proposals.
Dyson said he felt his amendments improved the bill but said he does not expect to vote for its passage today. Still, his willingness to cut off the GOP-led filibuster proved the pivotal moment in yesterday's proceedings. Under Senate rules, a vote to cut off debate must be approved by three-fifths of the chamber's members. Passage of the bill requires only a simple majority, and both sides expect it to pass with a few votes to spare.
Harris, who argued passionately against the bill, said it had been scaled back considerably during committee consideration and floor debate.
"We've got no funding in the bill, and no priority for embryonic," Harris said. "I think that's a pretty good outcome."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) was noncommittal on how the House might respond to the Senate measure. "The Senate bill falls significantly short of the standard set in the House bill," he said. "We're going to look at it, assess it."
During debate, Hollinger cited several people who have joined in the fight for the bill: a young girl with juvenile diabetes, a high school football player with a spinal cord injury and a middle-aged man -- a Republican, she noted -- with Parkinson's disease.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) made a brief appearance before reporters yesterday during which he restated his position that the legislation is not necessary. Ehrlich has proposed spending $20 million on stem cell research next year, leaving it to a technology development company to determine which projects to fund. Ehrlich said lawmakers need to take no further action beyond adopting the proposal, which he included in the state budget.