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Stem cell funding, a silver bullet for Democrats?

Will a Bush veto of a stem cell funding bill bring electoral gains for Democrats? Sen. Charles Schumer, D- N.Y., head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that surveys indicate voter movement to the Democrats due to the stem cell issue
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Nancy Reagan supports federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. So does Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. So do 50 House Republicans.

Last year the House passed a bill to permit federal funding.

But President Bush is against it. And after the Senate voted 63-to-37 Tuesday to pass a bill that allows federally funded research on stem cells taken from unused embryos at fertility clinics, the White House has vowed a veto.

“The president is not going to get on the slippery slope of taking something living and making it dead for the purposes of scientific research,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said Tuesday.

The House passed the funding bill last year by a vote of 238 to 194, well short of the two-thirds needed to over-ride a veto.

Some Democrats gleefully predict that the veto will boost their chances in November elections.

Electoral gains for Democrats?
Sen. Charles Schumer, D- N.Y., the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said last week that surveys show significant voter movement to the Democrats due to the stem cell issue. Many scientists say that use of cells derived from embryos offers hope of finding treatments for Parkinson's disease and other ailments.

“Protestant non-evangelical Republicans” are shifting, Schumer said. “The elder in the Presbyterian church in the suburbs of Cincinnati,” Schumer said with precise specificity, naming his electoral target. “There’s a feeling among more affluent Republicans of uncomfortable-ness with where the Republican Party is headed.”

Such voters, Schumer said, “don’t like Schiavo,” a reference to congressional intervention last year in the case of the disabled Florida woman Terri Schiavo. “And they don’t like creationism being taught in the public schools, and they sure don’t like blocking stem cell research. It’s an issue that affects lots of swing voter Republicans who will move to the Democratic side…. When they know somebody who says, ‘My daughter could be blind by age 20, please allow stem cell research,’ they don’t see why not.”

Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, disputed Schumer, saying, federal funding of embryonic stem cell research "is not going to be a top-tier issue in any (House) campaign. For moderate Republican voters, this is not going to be a more salient issue than taxes or illegal immigration."

Bush says he opposes taxpayer funding because embryonic stem cell research entails the destruction of human life.

The administration policy is to permit 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.

Advocates scrutinize the votes
Non-partisan advocacy groups took an active role prior to the Senate vote, and will remind the electorate in November how incumbents voted.

“We fully expect to hold accountable the politicians who oppose this,” said John Hlinko, founder of StemPac, an advocacy group which calls for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

The Senate voted Tuesday on two other bills, one to outlaw “fetal farming” or donation of fetal tissue if a pregnancy was initiated only to provide such tissue, and another to promote federally-funded research on the therapeutic potential of adult stem cells. Both those measures were passed unanimously.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R –Pa., who opposes the House-passed bill, co-sponsored the two alternatives and predicted that Bush will sign them into law.

But Sean Tipton, of a group called The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, derided the adult stem cell bill as “clearly a political fig leaf.” He said, “Only a vote for H.R. 810, (the House-passed bill), is pro-patient and pro-research.”

Where Santorum stands
Santorum, locked in a tough race with Democrat Bob Casey, said the principle at stake is that “once life is created, it should be protected. In a world in which there’s a lot of gray, this is an area which deserves very clear protections for human life.”

Santorum accused Casey of being “somewhat obtuse” and “rather unclear” on the Senate bill.

But Casey spokesman Larry Smar said Casey “has been very clear about this issue” — he opposes federal funding of embryonic stem cell research that goes beyond the current administration parameters.

As Casey’s stance indicates, there’s no party unanimity on this issue among Democrats. Nor is there among Republicans.

Of the five Republican senators considering seeking the presidential nomination in 2008, three -- George Allen of Virginia, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska -- voted against it. John McCain of Arizona and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, broke with the president and supported expanding the research.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., was the only Democrat to oppose the bill. He often departs from the majority of Democrats.  Nelson is up for re-election this November in a state which is predominantly Republican.

An opponent of funding embryonic stem cell research, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said he can’t imagine Bush not vetoing the bill.

Republicans at risk?
The 50 House GOP members who voted for federal funding include five who are in what the non-partisan Cook Political Report rates as “toss up” races: Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania, Clay Shaw of Florida, Rob Simmons and Chris Shays of Connecticut, and Heather Wilson of New Mexico.

These members can argue that they voted their conscience and weren’t shy about opposing their party’s president. Their Democratic opponents can argue that it is their own Republican president who is blocking the will of Congress and they were powerless to persuade him.

In the case of some Democratic House candidates who are running against GOP incumbents who voted against stem cell funding, they, too, oppose such funding.

Case in point: Rep John Hostettler, R-Ind. Analysts see Hostettler’s battle against Democrat Brad Ellsworth as a toss up.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee slams Hostettler on its web site, saying he “sided with social conservatives against patients with debilitating diseases and voted against expanding federal funding of stem cell research.”

But Ellsworth’s spokesman, Jay Howser, said Ellsworth would have voted ‘no’ on funding just as Hostettler did.

Reuters contributed to this story.