Yuri Gripas  /  AP
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., right, speaks during an embryonic stem cell research news conference on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 6/29/2005 4:32:28 PM ET 2005-06-29T20:32:28

Proponents of embryonic stem cell research are trying to build public pressure on President Bush to persuade him to not make good on his veto threat against a bill providing federal funding for the research.

Democrats are also using the issue to marshal anti-Bush sentiment in the run-up to next year’s congressional elections.

Next month the Senate will debate a bill already passed by the House providing for taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research.

A bipartisan group of senators rallied Wednesday on Capitol Hill to urge Bush to sign, not veto, the bill if the Senate enacts it.

By late July, he is likely to have two bills on his desk: the House-passed bill and another one providing funding for research on umbilical cord blood that can be used to treat Hodgkin’s disease, leukemia and other disorders.

Senate progress on cord blood bill
On Wednesday the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee unanimously approved the cord blood funding bill, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.

“Cord blood does not eliminate the need for research on the potential benefits of embryonic stem cells,” he said.

Referring to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Hatch said, “I’ve chatted with the leader about this, and he knows that both bills need to come up” for a vote on the Senate floor. 

The Republicans are more divided than the Democrats on taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Bush says he opposes taxpayer funding because such research entails the destruction of human life.

But Republican proponents such as Hatch and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., argue that the stem cells used in research would come from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization programs, embryos that would be discarded anyway.

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On Wednesday Hatch praised the House-passed embryonic stem cell funding bill and urged the Senate to pass it as well.

“It seems ridiculous to make the argument that we’re going to allow those 400,000 in vitro fertilization embryos to die by discarding them, but we can’t utilize them for the benefit of mankind,” Hatch said.

Override a Bush veto?
The Utah Republican added, “If the president vetoes it, he vetoes it,” but said he hoped there would be enough votes in the Senate to override a veto. 

“That’s wishful thinking,” he quickly added.

Sixty-seven votes would be needed in the Senate to override a veto.

While the House embryonic stem cell funding bill garnered 238 votes, it didn’t get the 290 needed to overcome a veto.

“I think the key here is to not allow this to become political,” Hatch said. “Good luck,” cracked Dodd, standing by Hatch’s side.

Recent e-mails from both the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have denounced Bush’s veto threat.

“President George Bush, the very man who has crowed about ‘obstructionism’ whenever Democrats refused to rubber-stamp his agenda, continues to stall the process with his unconscionable veto threat,” said an e-mail last week from the DCCC, signed by Rep. Diana DeGette, R-Colo., the co-sponsor of the House embryonic stem cell measure.

Democratic activist Bob Fertik and John Hlinko, a veteran of the 2004 Wesley Clark presidential campaign, have formed a political action committee, StemPAC, to raise money to defeat candidates who oppose federal funding.

Hatch works on a compromise
Hatch indicated Wednesday that he is trying to come up with a compromise measure that Bush could sign while not violating his pledge to not permit taxpayer funds to be used to destroy embryos.

“We’re working on an embryonic stem cell bill that basically would not utilize federal funds during the capture of stem cells but would use federal funds after the stem cells were captured,” Hatch told reporters.

“If the bill is altered in a way that will avoid a veto, then all this speculation will be for naught,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

Asked whether Bush’s opposition to federal funding creates the perception that the Republican Party is anti-science, Smith said, “I would hope not. It may, in the minds of some people, but obviously some very prominent Republicans are supportive” of federal funding. “I think it (federal funding) will have broad Republican support in the Senate, just as it did in the House.”

A Bush veto “should not attach to the Republican Party, but some may wish to attach it,” Smith said. As for using the stem cell issue for political fund-raising, the Oregon Republican called it “pathetic, deplorable and counter-productive.”

In 2001 Bush announced a policy of permitting 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 use of stem cell lines derived from newly destroyed embryos after that date.

Smith said that in 2001, before Bush’s decision, he had “a heart-to-heart talk” with him on the issue. “I found the man had a good heart and was looking for a way to stay within his own ethical boundaries and he wanted to help. My hope is that if we do our job, ultimately he’ll find a way to put his signature on this bill.”

Effect on 2006 races
Ayres said that how the embryonic stem cell funding issue affects next year’s House and Senate races “depends entirely on the position of individual candidates in individual races. This is a highly complex moral issue where a number of people are confused about where to draw the lines.”

Social conservative advocacy and lobbying groups such as the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America oppose federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

These groups are also essential allies for Bush in any Senate confirmation struggle over a Supreme Court vacancy.

Ayres said he thought social conservative groups would “stand four-square” behind Bush on a Supreme Court nominee and “are not going to go into a fit of pique” if he signs an embryonic stem cell bill they oppose.

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