The Senate voted Tuesday after two days of emotional debate to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, sending the measure to President Bush for a promised veto that would be the first of his presidency.
The bill passed 63-37, four votes short of the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override Bush's veto. The president left little doubt he would reject the bill despite late appeals on its behalf from fellow Republicans Nancy Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"The simple answer is he thinks murder's wrong," said White House spokesman Tony Snow. "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."
Senate supporters of the bill likened that logic to opposition suffered by Galileo, Christopher Columbus and others who were rebuked in their time but vindicated later.
Polls show as much as 70 percent public support for embryonic stem cell research.
"There has been an upsurge of demand," said Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. Support for the legislation "has crossed every line we could imagine, certainly partisan lines, ethnic, racial, geographic lines."
Two stem cell measures likely to be signed
The Senate also passed two related measures — 100-0 in each case — that Bush was expected to sign into law.
One would encourage stem cell research using cells from sources other than embryos in an effort to cure diseases and treat injuries. The other would ban "fetal farming," the possibility of growing and aborting fetuses for research.
Those two bills were headed for a House vote later Tuesday. Bush was expected to sign them when he vetoes the embryonic stem cell research bill, as early as Wednesday.
Nineteen Republicans voted for the bill, while one Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted against it.
It was the first time Bush was wielding the veto pen against legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Congress. Snow said the president had issued 141 veto threats during his five and a half years in the White House, often against spending increases for domestic programs. This was the first time no deal could be cut, Snow said.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote to Bush, "Mr. President, I urge you not to make the first veto of your presidency one that turns America backwards on the path of scientific progress and limits the promise of medical miracles for generations to come."
Nancy Reagan, the former first lady whose husband died after suffering from Alzheimer's disease, had quietly made calls to a few senators to try to build support toward a veto-proof margin in the Senate. In a statement following the vote, she did not refer directly to the likelihood of a Bush veto.
"With this important vote in favor of embryonic stem cell research (H.R. 810), the pleas of so many suffering families have finally been heard," she said. "Time is short, and life is precious, and I hope this promising research can now move forward."
The White House and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist worked for what they considered the next closest thing: stem cell-related bills Bush could sign.
Enactment of the bill to encourage research on adult stem cells enables Bush and other opponents of embryonic stem cell studies to say they, nonetheless, support stem cell science.
"The president is not opposed to stem cell research, he's all for it," Snow said.
Embryonic stem cells are essentially master cells, able to morph into all the cell types found in the body. If scientists could learn to control these cells and coax them into becoming specific types on demand, they could grow replacements for damaged tissue. The idea is to use this process — still theoretical — to cure or treat a raft of diseases and injuries, from diabetes to Alzheimer's and spinal cord damage.
Opponents of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research say studies on cells derived from adults and umbilical cords is more advanced, less controversial and more deserving of federal funding.
How fast the science for both types of stem cell research proceeds depends on how much money the federal government is willing to spend, and for which kind. Supporters of the embryonic stem cell bill say the engine of public funding would greatly accelerate cures and treatments.
Veto override unlikely
The House last year fell 50 votes short of a veto-proof margin when it passed the same embryonic stem cell bill, 238-194. Fifty Republicans voted for the bill, in defiance of Bush and many of their party leaders.
Republican leaders in the House planned an override vote as early as Wednesday evening, confident that Bush's veto of the embryonic stem cell bill would be sustained.
Actress Mary Tyler Moore appeared with Frist during the day, saying she was very disappointed by Bush's stance.
"This is an intelligent human being with a heart, and I don't see how much longer he can deny those aspects of himself," she said.