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GOP Fissure on Stem Cell Vote Likely

July 17, 2006|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After almost a year of silence on the issue, the Senate is on the brink of approving an expansion of federal support for embryonic stem cell research -- a measure that bitterly divides the Republican Party, pits Congress against the White House and is almost certain to be blocked by the first veto of George W. Bush's presidency.

The issue, which is scheduled to come before the Senate this week, is forcing Republicans to make a dicey choice between two potent political constituencies: social conservatives who believe the research is immoral, and advocates for patients with debilitating diseases, who have won the support of prominent Republicans as well as Democrats.

The issue is also forcing political candidates nationwide to take sides in a debate that is shot through with emotion, religious fervor and scientific nuances.

In Missouri, Sen. Jim Talent -- one of the GOP's most endangered incumbents seeking reelection this year -- pleased conservative activists by opposing a ballot initiative that supports stem cell research.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. James Doyle's reelection bid may be helped by his support for stem cell research in a state where it could be big business.

Across the country, House Democrats are trying to use the issue against Republicans in suburban districts, where they believe voters tend to support the research.

The divisions among Republicans will be in the national spotlight this week when the Senate debates legislation that would loosen restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The bill, which the House passed last year, is expected to pass the Senate with the support of prominent Republicans, among them Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

But Bush is expected to quickly follow through on his promise to veto the bill.

Some Republicans, especially moderates, fear a veto would reinforce Democrats' argument that the GOP is beholden to the religious right and is obstructing scientific progress.

"That's a bad issue to make your first veto," Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said.

But for many social conservatives, the veto would be a powerful statement of principle.

"For the president, this is really an ethical line that shouldn't be crossed," said David Christensen, director of congressional relations for the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group.

At issue is research that involves destroying human embryos to obtain stem cells, which are thought to be able to develop into any type of cell in the body. Many scientists believe such research may lead to cures for diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

That hope has prompted many scientists and patients' advocates to call for looser limits on federal funding for the research.

But Bush and many other conservatives liken the destruction of embryos to abortion, and say that taxpayers should not finance what critics call immoral research. They also say the potential of embryonic stem cells to treat disease is overstated.

A recent poll released by the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which backs the legislation, found that 72% of Americans supported embryonic stem cell research -- a finding that supporters say is a measure, in part, of how many lives have been touched by the illnesses that such research might help cure.

Critics dismiss that finding, noting that a poll released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found that when the poll question clearly stated that human embryos were destroyed, 39% supported federal funding for such research.

Under current law, scientists can use federal money for the research only with lines of stem cells created before August 2001, when Bush laid out his stem cell policy. Bush said that limitation was aimed at making sure federal funding did not prompt scientists to destroy additional human embryos to obtain stem cells.

The bill approved by the House last year would render more stem cell research eligible for federal aid. It would allow federally funded scientists to work with stem cells created at any time, as long as the cells came from fertility clinic patients' embryos that would otherwise be destroyed.

The House's 238-194 vote was a watershed, because the House traditionally has been a stronghold for antiabortion forces. It was a sign that even some conservative abortion foes had come to dismiss the view that destroying an embryo in research was tantamount to abortion.

Another turning point came in the Senate when Frist, in a blow to his usual conservative allies and to Bush, last summer threw his weight behind the House bill. But ever since, Democrats have criticized Frist for not bringing the measure to a vote.

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