WASHINGTON — With a key vote approaching in the Senate, the White House is making a concerted effort to kill legislation that would ease federal restrictions on stem cell research -- a bill President Bush has said he would veto.
Administration officials and their allies are taking the unusual step of backing as many as five alternative measures in a bid to siphon Republican votes away from the legislation, which earlier this year passed the House by a wide margin.
The effort, supporters of the bill acknowledged Tuesday, is having an impact. Just last week, they were confident that their measure would easily pass the Senate, and might come close to a veto-proof majority of 67 votes in the 100-seat chamber. By Tuesday afternoon, they were saying the vote would be much closer -- and the bill could be defeated.
Among the alternatives is a measure that would direct federal funding to experimental techniques for stem cell extraction that would not destroy embryos. But several scientists testified before a Senate committee Tuesday that it would take years to determine whether such techniques would work.
Some powerful Republicans who support the House-passed bill to lift limits on embryonic stem cell research are denouncing the proliferation of alternative bills.
Their reaction underscored how the issue has divided Republicans.
Public opinion polls indicate broad support for increased embryonic stem cell research to help find cures for diseases. And the House-passed bill is backed by some GOP lawmakers who rarely stray from administration positions.
But Bush has said he would exercise the first veto as president on the bill, siding with those who argue that research that requires the destruction of human embryos is unethical and should not be funded by the federal government.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has promised backers of the House bill that it will receive an up-or-down vote by the Senate, perhaps as early as next week.
But Monday night, Frist sent an advisory to Republicans saying he will allow five other stem cell-related bills to come to a vote at the same time.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), normally a staunch Bush ally, supports the House's embryonic stem cell research bill. He said Tuesday that the White House was trying to create a "stacked deck" against it by bringing so many stem cell bills to the floor.
Hatch said he believed the goal was to protect Bush from delivering his first veto on an issue that puts him on the opposite side of so many Americans.
But Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), author of two of the alternative measures and a foe of embryonic stem cell research that requires the destruction of embryos, said, "This is exactly what the Senate should do: let's have a set of votes on the whole range of issues" related to stem cell research and bioethics.
Since Bush placed limits on federal funding of stem cell research efforts in 2001, several states have proposed legislation to cover such costs, in part to woo high-profile biotech companies and create jobs. California plans to spend $3 billion on stem cell projects in the next 10 years, and funding efforts in Connecticut, Ohio and New Jersey are underway.
On Tuesday, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich issued an executive order that set aside $10 million of the state's public health department budget for stem cell research -- including work with embryonic stem cells.
"This is just the first step. More [money] will come," Blagojevich said.
The governor said he used his executive powers to make "an end-run around the Legislature" because "the subject is so controversial, we'd never get anything started otherwise."
At a hearing in Washington called Tuesday by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), an ardent supporter of embryonic stem cell research, a panel of experts in alternative extraction techniques that would not require the destruction of embryos testified that it would take years for such methods to be ready for practical use.
Holding up an hourglass that he said a constituent suffering from Parkinson's disease gave him, Specter said the man turned the device upside down whenever they met. "He says: My life is drifting away just as the sands of this hourglass, and what are you doing about it?"
Scientists think that embryonic stem cells, which can develop into many different cell types, may lead to treatments or even cures for a variety of diseases, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and juvenile diabetes.
Supporters of such research say the bill pending in the Senate would restrict federal funding to research on excess embryos stored at in-vitro fertilization clinics that otherwise would be discarded as medical waste.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Bush decided in 2001, when he laid out his policy on stem cell research in a televised speech to the nation, that the federal government should not fund destruction of embryos.
"The president and the White House are working with members of Congress to develop approaches to fit within the president's principle," Duffy said.
Some Republicans said the White House goal was to get several of the alternative measures passed, so that even if the embryonic stem cell research bill opposed by the White House were approved, Bush could sign the other measures into law while vetoing the measure that would undermine his policy.
"I think the point is to confuse the issue," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), co-sponsor of the House embryonic stem cell bill.
Times staff writer P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago contributed to this report.