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A viable vote?

Congressional supporters of new stem cell research are expecting another presidential veto and are looking for ways to get around it.

Published February 20, 2007

Special report

[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]
Dr. Alison Willing, left, studies a stem cell tissue sample. She and Dr. Linella Gemma are characterizing the differences between young and old stem cells in a rat brain.

In six years in office, President Bush has vetoed only one bill from Congress.
Soon, he’ll likely have the chance to veto it again.

After the weeklong Presidents Day recess now underway, the Senate is expected to vote on a bill that would allow federal funding for research on stem cells taken from thousands of embryos created by in vitro fertilization clinics.

The embryos otherwise would be destroyed.

The House easily passed this bill last month, and approval in the Senate appears assured, with at least 60 of the 100 senators supporting it.

Despite calls to negotiate from fellow Republicans in Congress, however, Bush appears determined to veto the bill, just as he did last year. Those who have tried to engage the White House say they’ve failed to persuade the administration to compromise on more stem cell funding.

“I think they’re pretty well dug in,” said Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., a co-sponsor of the bill.

Meanwhile, advocates of the research are trying to quantify the effect of the president’s policy.

Though the United States has made advancements with federally funded research on so-called adult stem cells taken from amniotic fluid, organs and umbilical cord blood, other nations have devoted more resources for embryonic stem cell research, particularly Great Britain, Sweden and South Korea.

Some prominent U.S. scientists have left this country to take part in that work.

Advocates of the research call it a brain drain; however, the trend by individual states to fund some embryonic stem cell research has slowed the exodus, experts say.

“It’s complex, and this is why everyone is a little bit right when they make their statements,” said Aaron Levine, a doctoral candidate at Princeton University, who studies the intersection of stem cell policy and research.

“The best science in this field is probably done here, but there’s not as much science done” as there would be without restrictions imposed by the president’s opposition to funding.

In August 2001, the president decreed that federal money could be used for research only on existing stem cell lines, where the “life and death decision has already been made.”

At the time, White House advisers said as many as 70 stem cell lines worldwide would meet that criteria; in reality, only 22 such lines exist. All have been contaminated with animal “feeder” cells used to keep them propagating, which renders them unfit for human treatment.

The president, however, has shown no signs of updating his policy.

In a recent statement, the White House said again that Bush will veto any bill that allows federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells not covered by his policy.

That has prompted congressional advocates of the research to look for ways around his opposition.
Even if the Senate passes the bill with 67 votes — the two-thirds majority required to override a veto — the House is still three dozen votes away from overriding one.

With that in mind, congressional supporters of the research are talking to their leaders about attaching this bill to other, must-pass legislation, such as the spending bill for the National Institutes of Health.

“The president can do this the easy way, or he can do it the hard way,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., co-sponsor of the House version of the stem cell bill.

“If he does it the easy way, he’ll work with us to pass an ethical stem cell policy, and we’ll go down the road together. If he continues to be stubborn, it will continue to be an issue in the 2008 elections.”

Wes Allison can be reached at (202) 463-0577 or

[Last modified February 20, 2007, 06:40:24]

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