By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 19, 2006; A01
The Senate voted to lift restrictions on federally funded human embryonic stem cell research yesterday, setting the table for President Bush's first veto and producing an emotional campaign issue that Democrats believe will help them this fall.
Senators voted 63 to 37 to approve a House-passed bill that would pour millions of dollars into a field of medical research that is promising -- but also controversial because it requires destroying human embryos to extract the cells. Bush announced in his first nationally televised address, on Aug. 9, 2001, that he would ban government funding for research using embryonic stem cell colonies created after that date, and he has vowed to cast his first presidential veto to block the legislation rescinding his executive order.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said Bush's veto "will be pretty swift" once he receives the bill, possibly as soon as today.
The House, which passed the measure last year, appears well short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. If the House override attempt, which is expected within hours of Bush's veto, is unsuccessful, it would kill the issue for the 109th Congress but would probably propel it toward the front ranks of the November congressional election, lawmakers and political strategists said.
Polls show that a solid majority of Americans support human embryonic stem cell research, and Democrats are portraying Bush and his allies as captives of a dogmatic segment of the GOP that is blocking possible cures for major diseases.
"This is the kind of issue that voters use to distinguish members who are beholden to the far right," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a chief recruiter of Democratic House candidates for this fall's elections. "Every family in America is touched by someone who could benefit" from embryonic stem cell research.
The stem cell issue is prominent in several congressional races, including sharply contested Senate races in Maryland, Missouri and Virginia.
In the Senate, 43 Democrats, 19 Republicans and one independent voted to expand federally funded embryonic stem cell research, while 36 Republicans and one Democrat -- Ben Nelson (Neb.) -- voted against it. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.) voted for the measure. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) voted against it.
Before passing the bill, the Senate unanimously approved two other measures intended to give Bush stem cell-related legislation that he would be willing to sign. Republicans hope it will soften the political impact of vetoing a measure backed by prominent Republicans including Nancy Reagan and conservative Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah).
The first of those measures would ban the creation of human fetuses solely for the purpose of harvesting body parts, and the second would encourage research into creating stem cell lines without destroying human embryos. The House unanimously passed the first bill last night, but fell just short of passing the second on an accelerated "suspension" calendar that requires a two-thirds majority. It was unclear last night whether Bush would wait for all three bills to be on his desk before vetoing the funding measure and signing the others.
Several Republican lawmakers said the two Senate-drafted bills provide important ethical safeguards, but most of the Senate debate focused on the main measure, sponsored by Reps. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).
Federal funding is crucial to sustaining research into potential medical advances that have unproven marketability, so Bush's policy announcement on Aug. 9, 2001, was a turning point in the effort to explore the possibilities of human embryonic stem cells. He declared that federal money could be used to study only those stem cell colonies, or "lines," derived from embryos that had been destroyed by the time of his speech.
Scientists, however, soon said there were fewer such lines than previously thought, and some of them were contaminated or otherwise defective. A key break in Bush's political support came a year ago, when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a heart surgeon, announced his support for ongoing federal funding of research into stem cell colonies derived from leftover embryos stored at fertility clinics.
Frist called such embryos "nascent human lives" that deserve dignity. But because they are destined for disposal, he said, they should be used for research that could result in treatments for diabetes, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, some cancers, spinal cord injuries and other maladies.
Bush's looming veto drained yesterday's Senate debate of suspense, but not emotion. Frist said Americans live in "the century of the cells," which "will explode with regenerative medicine." He said he dreams of a day when diseased hearts, rather than being transplanted, can be healed through stem cell advances.
Human embryonic stem cells are prized because they can replicate themselves and become almost any type of human tissue.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who has had two types of cancer, said he thinks "it is a clear-cut question to use embryos to save lives, because otherwise they will be destroyed." Fertility clinics hold about 400,000 unneeded embryos, he said, and only 128 have been "adopted" by couples who played no role in creating them. "A century from now, people will look back in amazement that we could even have this debate when the issues are so clearly cut," he said.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a leading opponent of the House bill, sharply disagreed. "Since that little embryo doesn't have a pair of eyes and a hair color, doesn't have a name, it's very easy to dismiss this entity as insignificant," he said. "So we just kind of claim that there is a cloud as to what this is, and that allows us then to destroy that life and use it for our purposes."