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Bush veto draws line on stem cells

The president?s first veto comes on a controversial and politically risky issue. Long term, will it hurt his party?

Published July 20, 2006

WASHINGTON - Announcing the first veto of his presidency, President Bush said he rejected a popular bill on stem cell research Wednesday because it "crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect."

Bush struck a defiant tone, saying the bill would have forced taxpayers "to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos. And I'm not going to allow it."

He got a standing ovation from the crowd in the East Room of the White House, which included families with children that had been adopted from fertilization clinics as embryos. Congressional Republicans at the event described Bush as courageous for acting in the face of strong public support for expanded federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, which the bill would have provided.

But on Capitol Hill, Democrats and some Republicans who helped pass the bill decried the president's veto as a step backward for medicine.

"I disagree with the president's decision,'' said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a heart-lung transplant surgeon. "Given the potential of this research and the limitations of the existing lines eligible for federally funded research, I think additional lines should be made available."

Three hours later, the bill's sponsors in the House failed to override the veto.

While the legislation is dead for the year, the veto highlighted a divide among Republicans, and it carries political risks as they head into the November elections.

Although popular with conservatives, the GOP's core voters in a mid-term election, the president's veto threatens to alienate moderate Republicans and independent voters who support the research.

Scientists say embryonic stem cells, the building blocks of life, offer their best hope yet for finding treatments for incurable ailments, from diabetes to Parkinson's to paralysis.

The House passed the bill last year with strong bipartisan support, and the Senate passed it easily Tuesday. Polls consistently show at least 60 percent of Americans support expanded federal funding for the research.

Bush's veto could be especially troublesome for Republicans in close races such as Reps. Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale. Although both supported the bill, the veto gives fodder to critics who say they are members of a political party too indebted to its right wing.

"If the Republican Party becomes identified as against stem cell research, I would think Shays and Shaw could be hurt," said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst who follows Congress. "It's going to be up to them to cut through that."

Democrats vowed to raise a fuss about the veto in the fall campaign.

"This is not just some wedge issue. This is the soul of America,'' said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., a leading sponsor of the bill. "This is a colossal mistake. People will not forget.''

But some Republicans say they don't believe the veto will be an important campaign issue.

"I doubt very much this will sway the electorate one way of the other," said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville.

In 2001, hoping to find a compromise between those who favored embryonic stem cell research and those who liken it to abortion, Bush decreed that federal money could be used only on 78 existing lines of stem cells whose embryos already had been destroyed.

But most of those lines are now dead or damaged.

The bill Bush vetoed would have allowed the same research, but on stem cells taken from tens of thousands of leftover embryos created in in vitro fertilization clinics. The vast majority of those embryos otherwise will be discarded.

Some Republicans on Capitol Hill worried the issue may prove especially harmful to three Republican senators who voted against the bill and are in tough re-election campaigns in states where polls show stem cell research is especially popular: Mike DeWine of Ohio, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Jim Talent of Missouri.

The issue reaches beyond the nation's capital. Florida's Republican candidates for governor spoke up Wednesday. Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher issued a statement applauding the veto while Attorney General Charlie Crist, questioned by reporters, said he disagreed with it.

In Congress, the Republican strategy this week shows how delicate the matter is for the party.

Realizing the focus would be on Bush's veto, Republicans hoped he could sign a related but non-controversial proposal directing the National Institutes of Health to research ways to harvest embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryos.

Passing that bill would have allowed opponents of using embryonic stem cells - including the president - to still say they support stem cell research.

But while the Senate passed it unanimously, House Democrats engineered its defeat Tuesday night after arguing that the NIH already can fund such research.

Both chambers also passed a ban on growing fetuses purely to harvest their organs or tissue. Bush said he was pleased to sign it.

"Human beings are not a raw material to be exploited, or a commodity to be bought or sold, and this bill will help ensure that we respect the fundamental ethical line," Bush said.

No serious scientist has supported such "fetal farming.'' But the bill was a priority for evangelical conservatives, and it gave Bush something to sign Wednesday.

Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, the lead Republican sponsor of H.R. 810, downplayed the political angles. But he acknowledged they would be hard to ignore.

"I can't imagine that something of this nature, where you're dealing with people's health and lives, that it's not going to be an issue,'' he said.

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report

A rare event President Bush has been remarkably restrained with his veto pen. Recent presidents have been much more active.
President Clinton 37
President George Bush 44
President Reagan 78
President Carter 31
President Ford 66

[Last modified July 20, 2006, 07:02:56]

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