Advocates of embryonic stem cell research renewed their campaign in Maryland yesterday to tap state dollars for science that President Bush is restricting on the federal level.
Legislation authorizing as much as $23 million in state funding died on the final day of this year's legislative session under threat of a Senate filibuster. But an advocacy group that includes three former Maryland governors claimed new urgency for state action, citing Bush's recent pledge to veto legislation that could expand federal funding.
"It really gets down to the state level, it looks like, to solve these problems," said former governor Harry R. Hughes, who appeared at an emotional news conference in Annapolis with families affected by Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and other debilitating conditions for whom embryonic stem cell research holds promise.
Some opponents of the bill considered in Maryland last spring argued that stem cell research should not be a state responsibility. But it was opposed most staunchly by those who said the research is unethical because it involves the destruction of a human embryo.
Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris, a leading opponent of the state bill, said in an interview yesterday that he does not believe the legislation's prospects will improve anytime soon.
"As far as I know, nothing's changed," said Harris (R-Baltimore County), part of a group that threatened to filibuster the bill. "The science hasn't changed. The ethics haven't changed. I think we'll see the same outcome again."
Yesterday's news conference, held by Maryland Families for Stem Cell Research, was directed primarily at Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who remained largely silent on the legislation considered this year.
Members of the group also telegraphed a more aggressive lobbying strategy and said they plan to raise thousands of dollars for a public education campaign in advance of next year's legislative session. They also expressed hope that more Republicans would back the legislation, given recent support for stem cell research voiced by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and other Republicans in Congress.
Sen. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), a chief proponent during the last session, urged Ehrlich to include funding for stem cell research in his January budget proposal.
"We are begging you to give hope to the people in this state," Hollinger said.
Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said that the governor "supports the concept of embryonic stem cell research" but that it was premature to make budget decisions.
Advocates voiced frustration with Ehrlich's posture during the last session. Aides insisted that the governor remained undecided about the legislation even after his budget secretary had publicly opposed it.
Just days before the 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.
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), the chief House proponent of the legislation, accused Ehrlich yesterday of employing a "fake left, go right" strategy on the bill, which was opposed by a majority of Republicans as well as some Democrats who cited religious beliefs.
In an interview, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) predicted that legislation authorizing research funding would pass the House again next year. Hollinger said she plans to make it the first bill reported out of the Senate's health committee, which she chairs.
From there, the legislation's prospects are less clear.
Supporters of this year's bill said they had secured a majority of votes in the Senate. But under Senate rules, a three-fifths vote is required to end a filibuster. Hollinger and other supporters were not able to round up the votes to do that on the final day of the session.
Hollinger predicted that opponents will not be able to sustain a filibuster next year if the bill comes to the floor early in the 90-day session. "I don't think they're going to filibuster for 80 days or 90 days," she said.
However, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) said he believes that scenario is unlikely. Miller said that the stem cell legislation would also need the approval of the chamber's budget committee and that he expects that panel will find competition for the funds.
In addition to Hughes, former governors William Donald Schaefer (D) and Marvin Mandel (D) are members of the advocacy group in Maryland.
At least nine other states have taken steps to fund stem cell research since Bush announced restrictions on federally backed research in 2001.