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Stem Cell Debate Wedges Bush Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Sen. Sam Brownback brought a few guests: Abby Pell, 1, and Elisha Lancaster, 3, held by their mothers. After suffering brain damage, Abby was treated with stem cells from her own cord blood. Elisha was adopted as an embryo.
Sen. Sam Brownback brought a few guests: Abby Pell, 1, and Elisha Lancaster, 3, held by their mothers. After suffering brain damage, Abby was treated with stem cells from her own cord blood. Elisha was adopted as an embryo. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)

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By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

George W. Bush has signed 1,116 consecutive bills into law since becoming president. He probably wishes he had vetoed just one of them.

Instead, Bush faces the prospect of casting his first veto this week against embryonic stem cell research, defying the wishes not just of a majority of Americans and their representatives but also of Nancy Reagan and those representing millions of people with Parkinson's disease, diabetes, spinal injuries and the like.

Thus did Bush find Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, on the Senate floor yesterday comparing the president's position to those who opposed Columbus, locked up Galileo, and rejected anesthesia, electricity, vaccines and rail travel. Such attitudes "in retrospect look foolish, look absolutely ridiculous," said Specter, daring Bush to join them.

Even Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a former transplant surgeon who got his job as Senate majority leader thanks to Bush's influence, inserted a scalpel in the president. "Stem cells offer hope for treatment that other lines of research cannot offer," said Frist, who has rescinded his earlier support for the Bush policy. "The current policy unduly restricts the number of cell lines."

Bush's congressional allies, meanwhile, were mailing it in yesterday. GOP Reps. Joseph Pitts (Pa.), Mike Pence (Ind.) and Dave Weldon (Fla.) called a "background briefing" on stem cells for 11 a.m. in the Cannon House Office Building -- but none of the three showed up. "He's a host and sponsor," explained Pence spokesman Matt Lloyd. "I don't think we ever said he was coming."

In the Senate, Bush's defense was taken up almost exclusively by the chamber's two most ardent religious conservatives, Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). And they were having a tough time of it.

Brownback, beneath an oil portrait of George Washington, beckoned to a photograph of a bald eagle and complained of a disparity between treatment of human and bird embryos. "You can face . . . two years in prison for destroying a bald eagle egg," he said, but "taxpayer dollars are used to destroy a human at the same phase of life."

Brownback brought a group of parents of children grown from "adopted" embryos to make his point. "My daughter was flown out FedEx from the East Coast to the West Coast, where I live," reported Maria Lancaster. "She had been in the freezer four years."

Marlene Strege, with her 7-year-old daughter, who was adopted as an embryo, displayed a drawing by the girl of an embryo asking, "Are you going to kill me?" Said Mom: "Mommy and Daddy and her are all adopted into God's family because of what Christ did on the cross."

This election year has been full of "wedge" issues in which Republicans sought to split Democrats on cultural issues such as flag burning and same-sex marriage; this week alone, while war threatens the Middle East, the House is taking up legislation protecting the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and a gay-marriage amendment to the Constitution that has already been rejected by the Senate.

Frist, by decreeing that the stem cell bill would get a vote on the floor, gave the Democrats a rare wedge with which to split Republicans, and Democrats were effusive.

"I privately congratulated and complimented Senator Frist," Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) said publicly.


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