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Republican vs. Republican: A cellular division

Mutiny. Blackmail. Adorable children. The drama behind the bill to expand federal funding for stem cell research. It's a story of how Washington works.

By WES ALLISON
Published August 13, 2006


Part 1: The Coup

Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2005 U.S. Capitol, Washington

Down in the basement, in a windowless room cluttered with folding tables and cheap black plastic chairs, two-dozen Republican congressmen ate cold-cut sandwiches and pondered the unthinkable: mutiny.

Reps. Mark Kirk and Charlie Bass, the chairmen of this group of House moderates, joined Rep. Mike Castle at the front of the room and made their pitch. They wanted their colleagues to take a monumental risk and challenge not only their party's leaders, but the president himself.

Since his first year in office, President Bush had restricted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, a policy that scientists say is hampering research into treatments for ills from diabetes to paralysis to Parkinson's disease.

Bass, Kirk and Castle wanted their group to push a law that would overturn Bush's policy.

Many in the room balked. Get real. Almost everybody who mattered in Republican politics would fight them, from the president and Tom DeLay to the evangelical leaders with their thousands-strong mailing lists. And in today's era of extreme party politics, loyalty is rewarded and mavericks are crushed. Besides, the speaker of the House would never let stem cells come to a vote.

Maybe he would, Castle told them. If they weren't afraid to try a little blackmail.

* * *

With the November elections over, the Republican Party was in elephantine glory. The GOP had added seats in both houses of Congress. President Bush was safely ensconced for a second term.

Evangelicals were being credited with delivering his re-election, and the news was dominated by talk of the conservative agenda to come: restructure Social Security, cut taxes and entitlement spending, ban gay marriage.

But the mood was hardly heady for the moderates, who often felt as welcome by their party as Democrats.

They believed that centrist voters - their voters - were the backbone of the GOP but feared that Republican leaders were steering the party too far right. The moderates in the basement called themselves the Tuesday Group (and met, naturally, on Wednesdays). They half-heartedly had tried to push back against their party on abortion restrictions, environmental protection, funding for education and social services. They were used to losing.

On stem cells, they vowed, things would be different.

"This entire battle had to be waged within the Republican Party," said Kirk, "by people who had unwavering loyalty to the Republican Party, but by those who wanted to change the direction."

Embryonic stem cells are the building blocks that become hair, skin, organs, eyes - everything that turns a microscopic speck into a baby. Because stem cells theoretically can do any job in the body, scientists believe they can be coaxed into replacing cells lost to disease or injuries.

But to harvest them, embryos must be destroyed, and many social conservatives liken the research to abortion. In August 2001, in his first major policy speech, President Bush banned federal funding for such research, except on stem cells already taken from some 60 human embryos, "where the life-and-death decision has already been made."

But as it turned out, most of those colonies had died or were unusable for human treatments. Meanwhile, some 400,000 embryos - byproducts of in vitro fertilization - sat in deep freeze at fertility clinics around the country. Most are destined to be destroyed as medical waste.

Castle's bill would allow federal funding for research on stem cells taken from the embryos and allow the National Institutes of Health to award hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants.

Bass and Kirk, the new chairmen of the Tuesday Group, told their members that getting a stem cell vote would be their top priority.

Their colleagues were dubious. Majority Leader Tom DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert decide what bills come to the floor, and they and most other House Republicans opposed expanding stem cell research. They would never allow a vote.

But Bass and Kirk said they could play their own brand of hardball.

By Easter, the House would vote on the budget resolution, a $2.5-trillion blueprint of spending for the coming year. The vote was looking especially close. Democrats were united against it. Conservative Republicans were threatening to oppose it unless the leadership cut spending by billions more.

Hastert and his team could not afford more Republican defections.

Kirk and Bass wanted to give Hastert an ultimatum: Allow a vote on the stem cell bill - or members of the Tuesday Group would vote against the budget. They had already drafted a letter to Hastert.

Well. Moderate Republicans don't play like this. Hastert and DeLay have a dozen ways to punish those who stray - yank committee assignments, quash bills, can hometown pork. DeLay wasn't called the Hammer for nothing.

Kirk, one of 10 deputy whips who usually round up GOP votes, warned the moderates in the basement that anyone who signed the letter could expect to feel the leadership's ire. Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor likely would call first, to ask you to reconsider, he said. A genteel Virginian with a buttery Southern accent, Eric would be gentle.

Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri would call next. Roy would be more forceful.

"Then you'll go see Tom DeLay. And that could get rough. And then you'll be asked to go to the speaker's office, and Denny is so positive and so nice, he's probably raised money for you."

Kirk paused.

"And then you'll probably be called into the Oval Office, where everybody's knees turn to water. I don't want you to make this commitment unless you can look the president in the eye, in the Oval, and tell him you're not there.

"The worst thing to do is to deliver a big demand, and then collapse."

Only eight would sign on.

 

Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2005 Senate Radio-TV Gallery, 3rd Floor, U.S. Capitol

On the cramped stage, Reps. Mike Castle and Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Colorado, announced they had filed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005.

The bill had been assigned a number, House Resolution 810. Castle thought it had a ring to it, nice and easy to remember. H.R. eight-ten.

A 67-year-old former governor, Castle is Delaware's most popular politician. He is also president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group of moderate officeholders and the parent organization of the Tuesday Group.

The patient advocates streaming into his office the past few years had made him a champion for stem cell research. He also believed it was a political winner.

"We will do anything we can to change the policy," Castle said at the news conference. "We will keep the pressure on the White House. We will apply pressure to the leadership to schedule a floor vote, and we will continue to educate our colleagues about why an expansion of this policy is so critical to health care in this nation."

The two House members were joined on stage by six senators, including Republican Arlen Specter and Democrat Tom Harkin. Overturning the president's stem cell policy was popular in the Senate. The year before, 58 senators sent Bush a letter asking him to reconsider.

The barrier to change had always been the House leadership. Just get H.R. 810 passed on your side, the senators told Castle and DeGette. We'll get it through the Senate.

Castle's tough talk hardly drew a response from the right. Rep. Dave Weldon of Florida, a physician and opponent of embryonic stem cell research, didn't even bother with a press release. Neither did Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, chairman of the House Pro-Life Caucus, or Tony Perkins, president of the influential Family Research Council.

The House was safely in conservative hands. This stem cell nonsense wasn't going anywhere.

 

Monday, March 14, 2005

In Hastert's House, focus and unity kept the Republican machine humming, but the headlines over the past week suggested some sputtering:

Tax cuts lose spot on GOP agenda ... Senators may block Social Security vote ... Schiavo's case lands in Congress ... DeLay ethics allegations now cause of GOP concern.

As expected, House conservatives were threatening to boycott the budget resolution because it didn't cut spending enough. The last thing Hastert needed was trouble from his moderates, too.

Castle called Hastert's chief of staff with a message for Mr. Speaker: He had a letter. Eight Republicans from the Tuesday Group had signed it. They didn't want to go public, they weren't trying to embarrass anyone, but unless Hastert promised a vote on H.R. 810, all eight would vote against the budget resolution.

Hastert's man told Castle he would get his meeting.

 

Tuesday, March 15, 2005 Speaker's Rooms, U.S. Capitol

Around 5:30 p.m., Castle and his deputy chief of staff, Elizabeth Wenk, were ushered into a suite of ornate offices and meeting rooms adorned with portraits of Abraham Lincoln, one of Hastert's heroes.

They sat at a long wooden conference table with a half-dozen other Tuesday Group members: Kirk of Illinois and Bass of New Hampshire, and Reps. Joe Schwarz of Michigan, Jim Leach of Iowa, and Chris Shays and Nancy Johnson, both of Connecticut.

Hastert and Blunt, his third in command, sat down.

The speaker is 63, burly and mild-mannered, a former wrestling coach who looks out for his Republican team. Need a letter to the local paper extolling your help in passing key legislation? Hastert sends it. Money for a road project? Hastert can help. In a dogfight for re-election? Hastert writes $1,000 checks from his war chest.

"His power is that when someone has done so much for you, it is hard to turn them down," Kirk said.

"He almost never asks for something for himself. So when he calls you into his office ... then lowers his glasses and looks at you and says, 'I need you on this,' what he also says by that look is, By the way, every time you've needed me, I've been there. "

Small talk is not his forte. Hastert invited his guests to take two or three minutes each to make their case, and nodded at Castle to begin.

Castle told him about the letter and their demand: their votes on the budget in exchange for Hastert's promise to allow a vote on H.R. 810. Hastert betrayed no reaction.

Kirk was next. He talked up the public opinion polls, which consistently show more than 60 percent of Americans support embryonic stem cell research. Blocking a vote on H.R. 810 could hurt Republicans in the next election; Democrats would portray them as antiscience and out of step with mainstream America.

Bass tackled the main argument against the research: that destroying an embryo to harvest its stem cells is tantamount to abortion. Because the research offers hope for the living, it is "prolife."

Schwarz, an ear-nose-throat surgeon and cancer specialist, gave Hastert a quick science lesson:

Picture a days-old embryo as a hollow ball. Inside are as many as 30 stem cells. Unlike adult stem cells, which are found in bone marrow, umbilical cord blood and some organs, embryonic stem cells have not gotten their marching orders. They can become any tissue in the body.

"There is no differentiation at all - no heart, no kidney, no brain cells," Schwarz told Hastert. "They have a greater potential than adult stem cells, or cord blood cells. It is just a better stem cell."

Hastert told the group he would consider the request. The conspirators filtered back into the hall, unsure of their chances but heartened by one element in their favor: The budget vote was tomorrow, and their toughest opponent was busy elsewhere.

Given the chance, Majority Leader DeLay, a conservative field general in the culture wars, would smite H.R. 810 and leave it lifeless on the floor of the clerk's office.

But DeLay couldn't make the meeting. He was answering questions about taking fancy trips with lobbyists. He also was leading the House charge to pass a law so the federal courts could review the case of Terri Schiavo, who lay in a hospice in Pinellas Park. Her feeding tube was to be removed in just three days.

Castle and Shays would be among just five Republicans to vote against the Schiavo bill, which they considered a colossal overreach of congressional authority. But as they left the meeting with Speaker Hastert, who was on his way to dinner with President Bush, they were happy that Schiavo provided a distraction.

 

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Just before lunch, Castle got word that Hastert wanted to see him. He snared Kirk, Bass and Shays and marched to the speaker's ceremonial office, a small room just off the House floor.

Hastert and Cantor, the chief deputy whip, met them there. Hastert said his leadership team had discussed it that morning. The stem cell bill would get a vote, likely by summer.

The speaker asked one thing in return: The leadership didn't want to have this fight more than once, so be patient. Don't bring up H.R. 810 in committee, don't tack it on as an amendment to other bills, don't make a fuss. Just wait.

As for the budget bill, Hastert added, there's no quid pro quo. Vote however you like. He lumbered from the room.

Kirk and Bass hooted and high-fived.

Now, what about the budget? Regardless what Hastert said, he was counting on their votes; they figured he just didn't want to expose himself to criticism from conservatives that he had made a bad trade.

Castle always voted against the budget because the GOP leaders pack it with tax breaks for special interests and cuts in social programs. But when the vote was called that night, he punched yea. A deal's a deal, he said.

Seven of the eight voted yes.

The budget bill passed 218 to 214.

 

Monday, March 21, 2005 Rayburn House Office Building, the Capitol

Elizabeth B. Wenk is 30, a fast- talking Pennsylvanian with a directness that keeps her focused amid chaos. As Castle's deputy chief of staff, she would coordinate the selling of H.R. 810.

Wenk convened the first of the weekly meetings they called the War Room: two dozen congressional staffers and lobbyists from the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a group of 90 patient advocacy and research organizations.

Like all good campaigns, theirs began with research. They scoured the voting records and public statements of almost every House member to create a "whip list," an Excel spreadsheet tracking where they stood on H.R. 810. There were about 360 who were solid, one way or another. That left 75 members they marked as leaning no, leaning yes, or undecided.

Many were like Republican Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri, who at first glance appeared to be against the bill.

In 10 years in Congress, Emerson has filed legislation every session seeking a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. The conservative religious groups that would fight hardest against H.R. 810 consider her an ally, an ardent opponent of gay marriage and gun control. She lives in Cape Girardeau, hometown of commentator Rush Limbaugh.

But Emerson is also a strong advocate of medical research. She had been elected to replace her first husband, Rep. Bill Emerson, who died of cancer.

Wenk marked Emerson as leaning no. But she was swayable, Wenk figured. Definitely swayable.

The War Room's goal was to make sure every potential supporter of H.R. 810 felt pressure from all sides. Every Tuesday, Wenk gave the bill's chief Republican sponsors names of a half-dozen colleagues they were to target that week.

The sponsors would corner their targets at a committee hearing or luncheon or on the crowded House floor for, as Bass put it, "a heart-to-heart chat, which in Congress is five minutes. I'd sidle up and say, 'So, how are you doing on stem cells?' "

Almost every target got a visit from a child with diabetes from their home state. Patient advocacy groups wrote them letters. For lawmakers with questions about the science, Wenk's team arranged conversations with leading researchers.

Wenk's troops also distributed Chapter 11 from Orrin Hatch's book, Square Peg: Confessions of a Citizen Senator, to 40 conservatives. In it, the Utah senator details how an icon of the antiabortion movement like himself came to support embryonic stem cell research.

"We weren't arguing with moderate Republicans. These were conservative, prolife Republicans," Bass said. "We could bring in Sen. Hatch. They believe him, they know him, and that was very helpful."

Some advocates had toyed with naming the bill in honor of another conservative icon, President Ronald Reagan, who died the previous year of Alzheimer's. They chose not to, for fear of alienating Democratic supporters, but now they recruited Nancy Reagan, an outspoken supporter of embryonic stem cell research.

One of President Reagan's pall- bearers was Hollywood producer Doug Wick, whose films include Gladiator and Jarhead. His teenage daughter has diabetes, and Wick serves on the board of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

He gave Mrs. Reagan the names of 10 undecided Republicans to call, including at least four antiabortion members from Reagan's home state of California.

Cantor, the House's only Jewish Republican, heard from Hadassah: the Women's Zionist Organization of America. Bass had Cantor on his list, but he knew that Cantor's wife was a stem cell supporter. She would be working on him, too.

"I was the least of his problems," Bass said. "His problem was indeed his own domestic situation."

 

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Margie Montgomery was shopping in a Walgreens in Louisville when her cell phone rang. It was Ed Whitfield, a Republican congressman from Kentucky, returning her call.

Montgomery, executive director of the Kentucky Right to Life Association, was trying to ban embryonic stem cell research in her state. The National Right to Life headquarters had alerted her that Whitfield - a reliable ally - was a co-sponsor to H.R. 810.

Whitfield thought expanded research might help sick people, but Montgomery gave him an earful: No one has been cured with embryonic stem cells, while treatments with "ethical" adult stem cells, such as cord blood, are plentiful. She said she would get a packet of info in the mail to him. Today.

"He has had a very good record on prolife issues," Montgomery said. "We wanted to keep it that way."

As Wenk's team whipped support for H.R. 810, antiabortion and evangelical groups like Montgomery's mounted a countercampaign. The right-to-life movement has the infrastructure to quickly reach hundreds of thousands of voters and their lawmakers.

Focus on the Family sent e-mail alerts to its 130,000 subscribers and urged everyone listening to Family News in Focus, which airs on 700 radio stations, to lobby their representatives. The Concerned Women for America and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched similar efforts. The Family Research Council sent its medical expert to Capitol Hill.

Weldon sent every House member a "Dear colleague" letter that asked and answered 10 questions: How many frozen embryos in clinics might be useful? (As few as 275, according to a Rand Corp. study). Which country spends more on stem cell research, the United States or Great Britain? (The United States).

And No. 10: "Has the U.S. government ever sanctioned or funded the destruction of nascent human life? Will H.R. 810 cross that bright red line?"

He signed it Dave Weldon, M.D., and added: "Unless you answered at least nine correctly, then you are NOT ready to vote 'yes' for a Brave New World."

Montgomery sent similar information to Whitfield.

"The thing is," she said, "so many of our Congress people, just like the regular public, are not familiar with this issue, and they receive a lot of misinformation from the media and even the scientists that are quoted in the newspaper.

"Once they are presented with the information, they change their mind."

The next day, Whitfield asked the speaker of the House to drop him from the bill. He was no longer a co-sponsor.

Wenk crossed him off the "Yes" list.

 

Wednesday, May 11, 2005 2nd Floor, U.S. Capitol

The House Republican leadership is like the Vatican or the Federal Reserve: Few outside the inner circle know what it will do, or when.

But within the club that is the U.S. House, there is a fraternity called Chowder & Marching, all Republican and mostly male. It is about the only thing that Tom DeLay and Mike Castle have in common.

The group meets Wednesday evenings in the speaker's dining room at the Capitol. Over sauteed Gulf Coast crab claws brought by a congressman from Mobile, Ala., DeLay gave his colleagues a peek at the upcoming legislative schedule.

The House would consider H.R. 810 by summer, he said, probably sooner than later.

Castle told Wenk, and her War Room ramped up. The next Monday, the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, which Castle heads, launched a $1-million, two-week run of TV ads.

Starring in the ads were Hamilton Cain and his 2-year-old son, Owen, who suffers from a fatal genetic disease called spinal muscular atrophy.

"We don't know how long we're going to have him," Cain says as the camera tightens to Owen in his crib, clutching a stuffed duck and breathing on a ventilator. "I think we have a moral obligation to look for ways to cure diseases like SMA, and I believe stem cells really do offer the best promise."

The morning before the ads started, Main Street slipped an "exclusive" copy to ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos to heighten the buzz. The show happened to feature Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Main Street member, who extolled H.R. 810.

Each week, Wenk's troops updated their Excel spreadsheets. By mid-May, the outcome was down to about 20 uncertain Republicans, many from swing districts where Democratic opponents would criticize them if they voted against stem cell research.

Where was Heather Wilson of New Mexico? Where were C.W. Bill Young and Clay Shaw of Florida? Where was Jo Ann Emerson?

* * *

Jo Ann Emerson wasn't accustomed to moral ambiguity. Her top rating from National Right to Life had never been in jeopardy. She believed it was wrong to destroy embryos, even to help the sick.

But she couldn't stop thinking about Cody Bader.

The summer before, on her annual tour of farms in her district in southeast Missouri, Emerson had stopped at the Bader family's peach orchard.

Emerson wanted to talk ag policy. Cody and his mom, Denise Bader, wanted to talk stem cells.

Cody was 21. He played high school basketball, hunted deer and planned to earn a business degree and take over the family farm. But eight weeks after he left for college, a friend's car overturned, and Cody was paralyzed below the waist.

Told he would never walk again, he placed his hopes in experts trying to coax embryonic stem cells into replicating neurons in the spinal cord.

With his congresswoman standing under the hot tin roof of the packing shed, Cody looked up from his wheelchair and said the federal government should do more to fund research.

"Not everybody's aware of all the technology that's out there and stuff," Cody told her. "I think the cure is right there around the corner, it's just for the funding and all that."

Emerson looked him in the eye and disagreed. The research didn't strike her as much different from abortion. She certainly couldn't square spending tax dollars on it.

The Baders gave Emerson a book, In Search of the Lost Cord: Solving the Mystery of Spinal Cord Regeneration, and pointed her to Chapter 12, about the promise of stem cells for the Codys of the world.

Soon after she sent Cody a letter. She had read the chapter. She sympathized. But she had qualms about the research. President Bush's position would remain her position.

Now, a year later, centrist Republicans and Democrats were pushing a bill to expand federal funding for such research, and her encounter with Cody had gotten her thinking: Destroying an embryo for medical research is morally wrong. But these embryos would be destroyed anyway. Is it wrong to keep them from helping the living?

Two Republican co-sponsors of the bill had been assigned to lobby Emerson, and they fed those doubts, setting up meetings with stem cell researchers who touted the possibilities.

Meanwhile, dementia ravaged her mother-in-law. A friend's infant son was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. Always, there was Cody.

 

Monday, May 16, 2005 House of Representatives

The chamber had not yet come to order when Rep. Rick Renzi of Arizona made a beeline through the crowded floor for Kirk, a leading advocate of H.R. 810.

Despite the passionate feelings over stem cell research, House Republicans had managed to keep the party's internal debate civil - until someone slipped Rep. Dave Weldon a secret memo.

It was from Republican pollster Dave Winston to the Republican Main Street Partnership, the organization behind H.R. 810, which had commissioned a stem cell poll in 13 Republican-held congressional districts. Winston reported that voters overwhelmingly supported expanded research.

What infuriated Renzi and others was that their fellow Republicans hadn't bothered to tell them about the polling in their districts.

Renzi, 48, is a hulking former linebacker from Northern Arizona University, a devout Catholic with 12 children. He was dead set against embryonic stem cell research - and furious that constituents in his rural Arizona district had been asked about it without his knowledge.

He felt ambushed and loudly confronted Kirk on the House floor. Friends pulled them apart.

"All I remembered was a big guy in college doing the same thing," Kirk recalled, "and I thought, okay, today I'm going to die."

 

Wednesday, May 18, 2005 The basement, U.S. Capitol

Angered by the secret poll, conservatives demanded a closed-door, members-only meeting. Hastert obliged, tossing most staffers out of the conference room.

Weldon brandished the pollster's memo, marked "confidential." He, Renzi, and others accused stem cell supporters of trying to blackmail them into voting for H.R. 810; if they didn't, the poll seemed to suggest, they would face repercussions in the next election.

Their Republican brothers should be punished, they said. Hastert shouldn't allow a vote on the bill.

Castle, the lead sponsor of H.R. 810, apologized. So did Kirk. Bass acknowledged that they should have been more open about the poll, but he said it made an important point: Republicans nationally favored the bill. Sinking it could hurt the party.

The speaker wasn't happy about the secret poll, either. "When somebody's hunting in your back 40, you want to know about it," Hastert said dourly as he left the meeting.

But he refused to cancel the vote. He wouldn't vote for H.R. 810 himself, he said, but he intended to honor his promise.

He did give conservatives a consolation: The day the House votes on H.R. 810, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, the House also would vote on the similar- sounding Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005.

That bill, H.R. 2520, was sponsored by Smith, the chairman of the Pro-Life Caucus. It would create a national registry and banking system for umbilical cord blood, a rich source of other types of stem cells.

Members could vote for Smith's bill but against H.R. 810 and still issue a press release saying they supported stem cell research. Conservatives hoped it would syphon votes from Castle's bill.

"I think it will demonstrate that there's undue focus on embryonic as the only game in town," Smith said. "We're giving them something to support that works."

 

Thursday, May 19, 2005 House Radio-TV Gallery, U.S. Capitol

Dave Weldon plays bass guitar in a congressional band called the Second Amendments, a quintet that hammers out country and rock hits from the '60s and '70s.

He is 52, in his sixth term representing the Melbourne area. An internist, his medical credentials have made him the House conservatives' go-to guy on biomedical issues.

He had declared that he could tell from a videotape that Terri Schiavo was not in a persistent vegetative state, and he filed the bill to have Congress come to her rescue. He tried to make cloning a crime and to kill federal funding for institutions that require employees to provide abortion counseling and services.

Weldon had felt betrayed when word filtered out that his party's leaders had agreed to a vote on H.R. 810. Fighting science with science, he enlisted four fellow Republican doctor-legislators: Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., a heart surgeon; Reps. Michael Burgess of Texas and Phil Gingrey of Georgia, both obstetricians; and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a family practitioner who also delivers babies.

They gathered in front of a shelf always packed with fake hardback books, for the benefit of the cameras. On the easel next to them was a poster:

 

Science + Ethics (respect for human life) = Adult Stem Cell and Cord Blood Research.

Science - Ethics (killing human embryos) = H.R. 810.

 

The doctors said it's not only immoral to destroy an embryo for research, it's unnecessary: Scientists were making progress with adult stem cells harvested from bone marrow, cord blood and organs.

Doctors have used such cells for bone marrow transplants in leukemia patients for years; now researchers are trying to use them to repair heart and brain tissue.

Weldon said he worried that H.R. 810 could lead to using federal funds to manufacture embryos just for research. Gingrey called it a precursor to fetus farming, creating babies solely to harvest their organs. Burgess, who has delivered some 3,000 babies, played a recording of a fetal heartbeat. He said H.R. 810 would destroy embryos just days before their hearts start to beat.

That evening, DeLay announced the next week's schedule: The stem cell vote would be Tuesday.

 

Friday, May 20, 2005 The White House

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Bush was not pleased.

H.R. 810 ran counter to his August 2001 proclamation that federal funding could be used only on stem cells already derived from some 60 human embryos. Most experts said his policy was hindering research, but Bush took time from an appearance with the Danish prime minister to dismiss suggestions that he should re-evaluate.

"I made it very clear to the Congress that the use of federal money - taxpayers' money - to promote science which destroys life in order to save life is - I'm against that. And therefore, if the bill does that, I will veto it."

 

Saturday, May 21, 2005 Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Emerson was at home, in this small town protected by flood walls from the whims of the Mississippi River.

Over the past two months, she had met with stem cell researchers, talked with priests and taken calls from antiabortion advocates. Weldon, a friend she considers "one of the greatest guys in the House," gently suggested that a vote for embryonic stem cell research was a vote against life.

She hashed it over with her husband, who was against the bill, and the Rev. John C. Danforth, an Episcopal priest and former Republican senator from Missouri, who was for it. Via phone and e-mail she maintained a soulful discussion with her own Presbyterian minister.

Yet even as she prepared to write her speech for Tuesday's debate, she didn't know how she would vote. With her daughters grown and her husband in Washington, she had the house to herself. She poured herself a glass of iced tea, sat at the computer in the family room and started to type.

 

Vote Day Tuesday, May 24, 2005, Rayburn House Office Building,

9:30 a.m.

The steady rain didn't dampen the fire of the advocates who gathered with Castle for a final pitch.

On stage were stem cell scientists, a 13-year-old girl with diabetes and a young mother suffering from early-onset Parkinson's disease.

At the microphone, Beth Westbrook of Pittsburgh described her daughter Katie's three-year battle with bone cancer - the amputation of her left leg, the exhausting chemotherapy, the last-ditch surgeries. Katie, 15, told her nurses the three things she wanted to do before she died: drive, try on a wedding dress, kiss a boy. She did all three, but the end wasn't any easier.

"No parent - no parent - should ever have to look at their child and tell them there are no more options, there's no more hope," Westbrook said. "No parent should ever have to tell their child that we are not doing everything possible to support research for a cure."

 

10 a.m.

The Castle crew was packing up when Weldon and his allies arrived for their show, a jolly, noisy caravan of strollers and kids and doting parents. Most wore black-and-white stickers declaring themselves, "Former Embryo."

Steve Johnson wheeled himself to the lectern. Paralyzed below the waist after a bicycle accident 12 years ago, he could not have children. He and his wife turned to Nightlight Christian Adoptions of Fullerton, Calif., which links adoptive parents with unused frozen embryos.

Doctors implanted the donated embryo in his wife's womb, and nine months later came Zara, the 3-year-old playing on the floor next to his wheelchair. Two-dozen other children, all conceived the same way, fidgeted as he talked, their beaming parents hushing them quiet.

"My soul aches for a cure," said Johnson, 44, of Exeter Township, Pa. "Would I kill my daughter so that I could walk again? Of course not. So why do we think it's okay to kill somebody else's daughter?"

 

House of Representatives 1:30 p.m.

As often happens in politics, personal experience trumps ideology. Which is how Texas Republican Joe Barton, a staunch opponent of abortion and stalwart ally of those aligned against H.R. 810, found himself opening the debate in favor of it.

Barton's father died of complications from diabetes. His brother died of liver cancer. A granddaughter died in the womb.

Maybe embryonic stem cell research would have helped them. Maybe not. But Barton said the nation had an obligation to try to help others like them.

"I come to the floor as a 100 percent lifetime voting member on prolife issues, minus one vote, in over 21 years. After this vote today, I am going to be 100 percent minus two."

 

1:45 p.m.

Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island guided his wheelchair to the microphone. "At age 16, I was an Explorer Scout in my hometown police station. One afternoon, in the police locker room, a gun accidentally discharged. The bullet severed my spinal cord, and I have been paralyzed ever since."

A quadriplegic, Langevin is one of only about 35 House Democrats who oppose abortion rights. But he told his colleagues, "To me, being prolife also means fighting for policies that will eliminate pain and suffering. And to me, support for embryonic stem cell research is entirely consistent with that position."

 

2:07 p.m.

President Bush appeared in the East Room of the White House, cuddling a baby and surrounded by parents and 20 other children adopted as embryos, who had made the trek from Weldon's press conference. The scene played on TVs throughout the Capitol.

"Today the House of Representatives is considering a bill that violates the clear standard I set four years ago," Bush warned. "This bill would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life. Crossing this line would be a great mistake."

In Bush's presidency, the Republican-controlled Congress had never sent him anything to veto.

 

2:20 p.m.

At the House lectern, Burgess, the Texas Ob/Gyn, said it was dishonest to suggest embryonic stem cells will lead to cures. "There is nothing in the laboratory, and there is certainly nothing in the clinics available to patients."

He hit play on his minirecorder. The rapid thump-thump, thump-thump of a fetal heartbeat rumbled through the speakers for a few seconds until Burgess was gaveled down for breaking the House rule against audio equipment on the floor.

 

4:15 p.m.

Jo Ann Emerson took her turn at the rostrum, smiling. She spoke about meeting Cody Bader, the peach farmer's son. The smile fell, and her composure broke as she recalled their conversation in the packing shed.

"Cody asked that I rethink my opposition to embryonic stem cell research because he thought that one day, if it did not help him, it might just help another young person like him," Emerson said, crying.

"I later wrote a note to Cody's family telling them that even after hearing his story, I could not do as he asked. And I have regretted writing that letter ever since."

 

4:30 p.m.

Renzi addressed the House, still smarting at Castle and the Republican Main Street Partnership for secretly polling 13 Republican congressional districts, including his.

"The government already takes 285-million of our tax dollars each year and funnels it into proabortion organizations," Renzi said. "The leadership of the gentleman from Delaware (Castle) undermines my ability to love my country, undermines our patriotism.

"I say stand fast against the secret pollsters and vote no on this legislation."

 

5:30 p.m.

As he struggled to save his job as majority leader, Tom DeLay had found haven in the welcoming folds of evangelical conservatives, whose agenda he pushed and who were happy to blame his troubles on his political enemies. Today he saved his speech for last, offering a stirring reminder of why they found such comfort in him.

"An embryo is whole, just unfinished, just like the rest of us," he said. "We were all at one time embryos ourselves, and so was Abraham, so was Mohammed, and Jesus of Nazareth and Shakespeare and Lincoln ...

"Like our embryonic cousins, Mr. Speaker, our nation is whole but unfinished. The issue is a test in which we are asked out of good and pure intentions just this once, just this tiny little bit, to let the ends justify the means, to let the noble aspirations justify ignoble actions.

"In this test, in this vote, then, we have an opportunity today to speak truth to the power of biotechnology, to rise up against the prevailing winds of human excess and hold fast to the dignity of human life upon which all other worldly truths are based: to ensure our appetite for knowledge is checked by our knowledge of our appetites ...

"I ask my colleagues, seize the opportunity and vote no."

 

5:45 p.m.

The speaker pro tempore announced that the time for debate had expired.

"Mr. Speaker," Castle said, "on that I demand the yeas and nays."

The buzzer sounded once, twice, four times in offices throughout the House side of Capitol Hill. Lawmakers who weren't in the chamber scurried to the House floor.

On the electronic scoreboard, the green light for "yea" lit up by the name of just one member of Hastert's leadership team, Deborah Pryce of Ohio. Her daughter, Caroline, died of cancer at age 9.

The Californians Nancy Reagan had called voted yes. Cantor, the Virginian, voted no. He would hear about it from his wife.

Heather Wilson of New Mexico, whose opponent in her bid for re-election accuses her of being a Tom DeLay clone, voted yes. So did C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores; most of his constituents know somebody with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's or another disease that stem cells might help. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale, fighting lung cancer, also voted yes.

And so did Emerson, finding atonement for the response to Cody that she now regretted. Her smile was back.

H.R. 810 passed 238 to 194.

Among House Republicans, 50 voted for it and 180 voted against, making it only the second bill in Hastert's six-year reign to violate his cardinal rule: Nothing passes the House without a majority of the Republican majority.

Castle, Bass, Kirk, DeGette and their staffs retired to Bullfeathers pub on 1st Street SE for celebratory beers.

Castle was beaming. "You aren't going to find many pieces of legislation that pass when the president and the leadership are opposed to it."

Weldon and his crew held their own victory press conference: The cord blood bill had passed, 431-1, and so what that H.R. 810 had passed? It got nowhere near the 290 votes needed to override a presidential veto.

 

Wednesday, May 25, 2005 Senate Radio-TV Gallery, 3rd floor, U.S. Capitol

Tired but jubilant, Castle and DeGette again crossed the Rotunda for a news conference with their Senate allies - Republicans Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch, Democrats Tom Harkin, Dianne Feinstein and Ted Kennedy.

They did what the senators asked, on this very stage back in February: They steered H.R. 810 through the House and delivered it to the Senate, where it supposedly was sure to pass.

The bill was only a few pages long. So they padded it with enough blank pages to give it some heft for the cameras and ceremoniously presented it to the senators, wrapped in red ribbon.

 

Tomorrow: the Senator and the snowflake babies

* * *

How the Florida delegation voted

Five Florida Republicans voted for H.R. 810: C.W. Bill Young, Indian Shores; Ginny Brown-Waite, Brooksville; Connie Mack, Fort Myers; Clay Shaw, Fort Lauderdale; and Mark Foley, Palm Beach County. Florida's 13 other House Republicans voted against. All seven of the state's House Democrats voted for the measure.


AT A GLANCE:

H.R. 810

The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 says that human embryonic stem cells are eligible for federal research funds if:

(1) The stem cells were derived from human embryos that have been donated from in vitro fertilization clinics, were created for the purposes of fertility treatment, and were in excess of the clinical need of the individuals seeking such treatment.

(2) Prior to the consideration of embryo donation and through consultation with the individuals seeking fertility treatment, it was determined that the embryos would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded.

(3) The individuals seeking fertility treatment donated the embryos with written informed consent and without receiving any financial or other inducements to make the donation.