AP file
Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H., an old friend of President Bush, voted for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research Tuesday.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 5/25/2005 12:45:55 PM ET 2005-05-25T16:45:55

On Tuesday on the Senate filibuster issue and again on Wednesday in the House vote to provide taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research, it was centrist Republicans, mostly from the Northeast, some from the Midwest and California, who took command.

So for 48 hours at least, the dominant branch of the Republican Party this week was the centrist wing, comprised mostly of members of Congress from places far from the Southern-Mountain State heartland of George W. Bush’s brand of Republicanism.

Bush was born in Connecticut, a state his grandfather represented in the United States Senate, but today his party’s geographical and ideological center is somewhere closer to Midland, Texas, where Bush grew up, or Belle Meade, the wealthy Nashville suburb where Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist spent his childhood.

High-profile centrists
Instead of Frist and DeLay, the marquee Republican names Tuesday and Wednesday were Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, chief GOP sponsor of the stem cell funding bill, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who helped design the accord to avert a change in the Senate’s filibuster rule.

To be sure, the label “centrist” is an imprecise one, especially when applied to a senator such as DeWine who has a lifetime 82 rating (out of a perfect 100) from the American Conservative Union (ACU).

Stem-cell research champion Castle better fits the “centrist” profile with a lifetime 59 rating from the ACU.

In Wednesday’s House vote approving taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research, 50 Republican members, many of them from the Northeast, California and Florida, voted with 187 Democrats and independent Bernie Sanders to pass the bill.

While the bill garnered 238 votes, it didn’t get the 290 needed to overcome the veto which the president emphatically has promised.

“The Castle bill is dead,” said one of its opponents, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., right after the vote.

Smith sponsored an alternative bill which will provide $75 million for research on umbilical cord stem cells. The House passed the Smith bill Tuesday with only one dissenting vote.

Hoping to change Bush's mind
But Castle voiced hope that GOP centrists might change Bush’s mind.

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“I believe that this president has a good heart,” the Delaware Republican told reporters Tuesday night. “I’ve spoken not to the president directly, but to Karl Rove and to the NIH (National Institutes of Health) people. Remember: in August of 2001 he approved a policy that allowed embryonic stem cell research.”

The 2001 Bush policy permitted taxpayer funding of research on stem cell lines created as of Aug. 9, 2001 or prior to that date, but no taxpayer funding for the derivation or use of stem cell lines derived from newly destroyed embryos after that date.

Of the 50 Republicans who voted for the Castle stem cell bill, 11 of them represent congressional districts that Democrat John Kerry won in last November’s elections. Conversely, of the 11 Democrats who voted against the legislation, nine were from congressional districts that Bush carried last November.

Democrats were quick to deploy stem-cell funding as a wedge issue to try to split middle-of-the-spectrum voters away from GOP members of Congress.

“Bush sacrifices stem cell research to radical right-wing politics,” proclaimed a headline of a press release Tuesday night from the Democratic National Committee.

One of the Northeastern Republicans who voted for the Castle embryonic stem cell bill, Rep. Charles Bass of New Hampshire, is a long-time Bush pal who voiced hopes that he and others might yet persuade the president to sign the bill.

As is the president’s habit with his acquaintances, Bush has given Bass a nickname, “Bassmaster.”

Political ally since the 1990's
“I was there at Odiorne Point in New Castle, N.H. when he set foot in the state for the first time as governor of Texas, contemplating a run for president, and I urged him to run,” Bass recalled in an interview in the House lobby right after the roll was called late Tuesday afternoon.

“We subsequently spent many months campaigning together, and we both suffered terribly when he lost the (2000) primary in New Hampshire” to McCain, Bass said.

“He understands where I stand and that has given me the ability to disagree with him heartily and robustly and there’s no hard feelings about it.”

Bush says he opposes embryonic stem cell research because it entails the destruction of human life, but Bass argues that the stem cells used in research would come from embryos (or blastocysts) left over from in vitro fertilization programs, embryos that would be discarded anyway.

“There are those who feel that the use of superfluous in vitro blastocysts is a life-and-death issue; I understand that position,” Bass said. “But I also think that people understand that providing hope for millions of Americans, tens of thousands of New Hampshire people, who suffer from chronic illnesses, offering this element of research, is very important.”

As for Bush’s veto threat, Bass said, “Republicans who support the bill will make a concerted effort to get our message to the president.”

He admitted, “It doesn’t look very likely” that the president will sign it into law, but “I never say ‘never’ with this president.”

Where Bass stands
While on economic issues Bass is right at home with conservatives, on social issues such as abortion and embryonic stem cell funding, he sides with liberal and moderate Democrats.

Bass was one of only 11 House Republicans to vote against the most recent high-profile anti-abortion bill in the House, a measure that makes it illegal for a person to transport an underage girl across state lines to get an abortion without her parents’ knowledge or consent.

Bass has a lifetime 73 ACU rating, but is critical of Bush’s environmental policies and opposes the constitutional amendment to define marriage as only between a man and a woman, which Bush supports.

While Bass won re-election last November with 58 percent of the vote in his district, Kerry carried his district with 52 percent.

Bass’s district is exactly the kind of place where Tom DeLay could never win — but which DeLay must have in order for GOP to hold on to its House majority.

The Republican map, if it to be a majority map, must stretch from Bush’s Midland and Frist’s Belle Meade all the way to Bass’s hometown of Peterborough, N.H.

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