WASHINGTON — The White House emphatically renewed President' Bush's threat to veto a bill heading toward Senate passage that would authorize federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, a practice Bush loathes.
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"If (the bill) were presented to the president, he would veto the bill," read a fresh official statement of administration policy Monday, with the sentence underlined for emphasis.
"The bill would compel all American taxpayers to pay for research that relies on the intentional destruction of human embryos for the derivation of stem cells, overturning the president's policy that funds research without promoting such ongoing destruction," it said. Bush says the practice forces a choice between science and ethics.
The statement weakened speculation by proponents that Bush, persuaded by new science and strong public support for the legislation, might reverse course and sign it into law -- especially if the Senate mustered the 67 votes required to overturn a veto.
Search for a veto-proof vote
But as the Senate opened debate, it appeared that was uncertain. Supporters of the bill, which would overturn Bush's restrictions in 2001 on any new such research, said the bill had 60 votes required for passage. But it was not clear how many more votes the measure would win during Tuesday's tally.
The House, too, would have to muster a two-thirds majority to overturn a veto. Last year, the measure fell 50 votes short, a number that supporters said was sure to shrink during an override attempt later in the week. But no one predicted enough support to turn back a veto.
In an emotionally-charged session marked by deeply personal stories of illness, death and hope, the Senate on Monday reopened debate on the legislation, which has deeply split Republican ranks and tested Bush's loyalty to his conservative base.
The politics of stem cells
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a presidential hopeful whose negotiations made the debate possible, decried restrictions on federal support for stem cell research.
"I feel that the limit on cell lines available for federally funded research is too restrictive," he told colleagues.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter emphasized that the bill would use only embryos derived from fertility treatments that would otherwise be discarded. He compared opposition to the bill to historical resistance to research that led to such landmark advances as vaccinations against disease and space travel, "to show how attitudes at different times in retrospect look foolish, look absolutely ridiculous."
"There is just no sensible, logical reason why we would not make use of stem cell research," said Specter, R-Pa.
Opponents say the advance of science is not worth destroying human life. They believe that embryonic stem cell research is immoral because the process of extracting the all-purpose stem cells destroys a fertilized embryo that is a few days old.
"The government should not be in the business of funding this ethically troubling research with taxpayer dollars," Brownback said, adding that using embryos for such research amounts to "treating humans as raw material."
"It is immoral for us to do it," he added.
"I do not believe taxpayer dollars should support research that destroys human life," seconded Santorum said in a statement.
The Senate is expected to pass the bill Tuesday afternoon and Bush is expected to veto it Wednesday. The House is expected to try to override the veto as early as Wednesday, but support for the bill is expected to fall short of the required two-thirds majority.
That the debate is happening at all is the result of a deal brokered by Frist, who broke a yearlong standoff between supporters and opponents of the legislation. To satisfy opponents and clear objections blocking the debate, Frist also is allowing votes on two related bills. One, sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., would encourage study on stem cells derived from sources other than embryos. The other, sponsored by Santorum and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., would ban so-called "fetal farming," the possibility of developing fetuses and aborting them for scientific purposes.
Those two bills are uncontroversial. The House is expected to approve them Tuesday by voice vote, and Bush is expected to sign them.
But the bill lifting Bush's 2001 restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is highly controversial and emotional because many scientists say the process holds the most promise for curing diseases that afflict millions of people.
Proponents struggled to make sure nobody thought the uncontroversial adult stem cell bill would advance science in the same way as the embryonic bill, numbered H.R. 810.
"Unless a senator votes for H.R. 810, he or she will not have voted for this meaningful life-giving research," said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.
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