Advocates of spending state dollars on stem cell research in Maryland say their chances will be markedly improved in the coming legislative session, given fresh polling data about the controversial science and the pressures that come with an election year.
A bill authorizing as much as $23 million in state money for research that President Bush has restricted on the federal level died under threat of a state Senate filibuster on the final day of the General Assembly session in April.
Supporters say they will concentrate on flipping at least two votes in the Senate and swaying Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who supports building research facilities but has not committed to paying for the actual research.
Though no senators have said publicly that they are willing to change their votes, leaders of both legislative chambers said last week that they expect some form of the legislation to pass in the session that convenes next month.
"I think passage of a bill is inevitable, and the only question is what it contains," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who showed limited interest in the bill last session.
Supporters say embryonic stem cell research holds great promise for those affected by Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and other debilitating conditions. It is staunchly opposed by those who believe that the research is unethical because it involves the destruction of a human embryo.
A poll published last month by the Baltimore Sun showed 60 percent of Maryland voters favoring state funding of embryonic stem cell research, with 27 percent opposed and 13 percent not sure.
Republicans, who led the filibuster threat in the Maryland Senate, favored funding, 48 percent to 40 percent, the Sun poll found.
Former governor Harry R. Hughes, who is chairman of Maryland Families for Stem Cell Research, said he is optimistic that such numbers and a better understanding of the science will help his advocacy group pick up the necessary support in the Senate to allow a vote.
Sponsors of last session's bill said they had secured a majority of votes in the Senate. But under Senate rules, a three-fifths vote is required to cut off debate. Sponsors said they fell two votes short of that threshold on the session's final day.
Senators facing tough reelection battles next year will be among those whom supporters try to persuade, said Robert G. Johnson, a lobbyist for the stem cell advocacy group.
Sandra B. Schrader (R-Howard) cast a committee vote for the bill last session but was prepared to stand with her party on the filibuster if the legislation hit the Senate floor. She is being challenged next year by Howard County Executive James N. Robey.
In an interview, Robey (D) said he "totally supports" the stem cell legislation, a stance that he believes is in step with the legislative district. Schrader did not return a call seeking comment.
Another target of advocates is John A. Giannetti Jr. (D-Prince George's), among the half-dozen or so Democrats who were prepared to join the Republican-led filibuster last session.
Giannetti, whose district includes College Park, faces a possible primary challenge from James C. Rosapepe, a former delegate and member of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents. Giannetti did not return phone calls, and Rosapepe declined to comment.
"I believe there's going to be pressure on some of these senators to represent their districts," Johnson said.
Nancy Fortier, associate director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said she, however, has no reason to believe any of the senators who were prepared to join the filibuster have wavered. Her organization staunchly opposed the legislation last session.
Fortier said that recent advances in research on stem cells derived from sources other than embryos should also give lawmakers pause.
"It just seems crazy to pursue the thing that has so much ethical baggage," Fortier said.
Her organization has directed much of its recent lobbying at Ehrlich, a wild card in the upcoming debate.
"We need to convince him to oppose legislation that will fund unethical research," reads an "action alert" on the group's Web site.
Just days before the last session ended, Ehrlich said during a radio interview that he supports embryonic stem cell research. But an aide cautioned that Ehrlich did not necessarily support the bill under consideration.
Aides say Ehrlich is likely to include money for university research facilities in his upcoming capital budget. That prospect is one of "a number of options with regard to stem cell research that the governor is reviewing," spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said.
But stem cell advocates say bricks and mortar are not enough. At least nine other states have taken steps to fund stem cell research since Bush announced restrictions on federally backed research in 2001. Maryland has recently lost some high-profile researchers to other states.
"Funding facilities without the research expenditure is like a shiny new car without an engine," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who predicted that a stem cell bill would pass by a wide margin in his chamber, as it did last session.
That would again focus attention on the Senate, where Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County) has said it will be the first bill addressed by the health committee she chairs.
Bill supporters say they are willing to make compromises to pick up the final votes needed to head off another filibuster. Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said it is possible that the bill could be more palatable if it called for less funding.
Legislative leaders have also floated the idea of putting the issue before voters on the November ballot.
Miller said that is not his preferred route. "But if people feel like the issue is so important to the state that there should be a referendum, I don't have a problem with that," he said.