By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2006
Senate leaders from both parties agreed yesterday to schedule a vote on a package of bills that would loosen President Bush's five-year-old restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research.
With head counts suggesting there are enough votes to pass the legislation and with Bush having promised he would veto it, yesterday's action sets the stage for what could be the first full-blown showdown between the chamber and the president.
The package, which includes language identical to that passed by the House, would allow federal funding of research on embryos that have been slated for destruction at fertility clinics. Those days-old embryos are rich in embryonic stem cells, which scientists say have great potential to treat a wide variety of ailments, including spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease and diabetes.
But the destruction of human embryos for research is opposed by many, including Bush, who has called them "society's most vulnerable members." Late yesterday the White House reiterated that view.
"The president does not believe we are forced to choose between science and ethics," said White House spokesman Ken Lisaius, adding that the legislation "crosses an important moral line." The president, he said, "would veto legislation that crosses this moral line."
Despite that threat -- and despite the recognition that the House, at least, seems not to have the votes to override a veto -- patient advocates and other supporters of stem cell research applauded yesterday's deal.
"We applaud the majority leader on his exemplary leadership for bringing this up," said Sean Tipton, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which has spearheaded the charge for policy reform. "We are confident that the votes are there."
In August 2001, Bush announced that federal funds could be used to study stem cells only from embryos that had been destroyed by that date. He favors more emphasis on "adult stem cells," which can be obtained from adult bone marrow and other sources but which many scientist say show less therapeutic potential than embryonic cells.
Bush's limits have proved frustrating to U.S. stem cell scientists, most of whom are dependent on federal grants. Increasingly over the years, they have watched colleagues overseas gain access to newer and possibly more promising colonies of embryo cells. Some have warned that the United States is losing its lead in what is widely viewed as one of the most revolutionary new branches of experimental medicine.
The Senate package, announced by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and quickly agreed to by Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), has three components. At its core is H.R. 810, the House-passed bill, which would allow fertility clinic patients to donate their spare embryos to federally financed researchers.
Also included are two bills sought by conservatives, which stem cell research proponents have said they can support. One, sponsored by Pennsylvania GOP Sens. Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter, encourages the National Institutes of Health to finance work that might someday allow scientists to produce cells equivalent to embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos.
The other, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and known as the Fetus Farming Prohibition Act, would make it a crime for anyone to trade in tissues from fetuses that were conceived and aborted expressly for research purposes.
Under the terms of the agreement, the three bills will be debated for 12 hours on a date to be agreed upon by Frist and Reid -- probably next month, the leaders said. Each bill will need at least 60 votes to pass, no amendments will be allowed, and all three must pass for the package to fly.
The mix of bills offers moderate and conservative lawmakers something to offer constituents as they approach the midterm elections.
Frist surprised many last summer by expressing support for a loosening of the Bush rules -- a move some saw as a strategic element of a presumed presidential bid. Public opinion polls show strong backing for the research, which has also received vocal support from former first lady Nancy Reagan.
Yesterday he went to great pains to reassure Americans of his conservative values. "I am pro-life," he said. "I personally believe that human life begins at conception."
But the few cell colonies available to federally funded scientists under the Bush policy are aging and not as high quality as scientists had hoped, he continued. "The responsible thing to do is to come to the floor and consider modifying that policy," Frist said.
"I know this hasn't been easy," Reid said, after accepting Frist's proposed terms. And by all accounts, Reid was not exaggerating. Until an hour before the announcement, several aides said, Frist was still wrestling with a last holdout -- Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who was threatening to voice his objection. Under Senate rules, that would have scuttled the consent agreement.
Enthusiasm for the agreement was tempered only by fears that the vote could get endlessly delayed -- a fear expressed by Reid on the Senate floor, given Frist's failure to lock in a specific date.
"I'm relying on your good faith and your word and reputation," Reid said. "I don't want to have to keep coming out here every week and saying, 'Why haven't we done this yet?' "
Frist assured Reid he would get the debate and vote scheduled soon -- "in all likelihood next month."
"I'm very pleased we now have a process in place," Frist said.