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Senate OKs Stem Cell Bill; Veto Expected

The measure would expand federal spending for embryonic research. Bush and social conservatives oppose the bill, calling it immoral.

July 19, 2006|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush, who has signed every bill Congress has sent him since he took office, is poised to exercise his first veto after the Senate approved a measure Tuesday to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The legislation won strong support in the Senate, passing 63 to 37. It cleared the House last year, 238 to 194. But Bush has joined with social conservatives -- a bloc that includes some of his staunchest political allies -- in opposing the bill as immoral.

A Bush veto, expected as early as today, would thwart the measure from becoming law because neither chamber is expected to muster the two-thirds margin required to override his opposition.

Still, the bill's proponents saw Congress' action as a legislative landmark that could pave the way for substantial federal backing for a controversial procedure at the cutting edge of medical science.

"In the future, in all likelihood, we will see increased federal funding of embryonic stem cell research," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who made a rare break with the White House to support the legislation.

The measure's backers pledged to keep the debate alive by spotlighting the topic in several of this year's House and Senate campaigns.

"This issue isn't going away," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, who voted for the bill, as did California's other Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein.

At a time of polarization on Capitol Hill, support for the legislation offered a rare display of bipartisanship -- 19 Republicans joined 43 Democrats and one independent in voting to overturn restrictions that Bush placed five years ago on federally funded embryonic stem cell research.

Opposing the bill were 36 Republicans and one Democrat -- Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

The president and his allies, mostly in the antiabortion movement, oppose the research because it requires the destruction of human embryos to extract the stem cells.

"The president believes strongly that for the purpose of research, it's inappropriate for the federal government to finance something that many people consider murder," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Tuesday. "He's one of them."

But research backers, including some abortion opponents, say the research is "pro-life" because scientists think it could help develop cures and treatments for debilitating diseases.

Some Bush allies saw it as an appropriate emblem of the president's style of leadership that he probably will exercise his first veto on what he considers a matter of moral principle, even though polls generally show that a sizable majority of the public favors embryonic stem cell research.

"He is in office to do the right thing, even if doing the right thing makes him temporarily unpopular," said Michael Franc, a conservative analyst at the Heritage Foundation think tank.

But critics framed the prospective veto as a testament to how wedded Bush is to the agenda of religious conservatives who are influential in the GOP.

"Congress has taken the politics out of the debate on stem cell research; it's time the White House does too," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).

Some Republicans worry that the president's opposition to the research will alienate swing voters -- and perhaps cast the GOP as hostile to scientific programs.

At the urging of Republicans eager to show their backing for research they view as ethical, the Senate on Tuesday passed a bill reiterating support for efforts to create stem cells without destroying embryos. It also passed another bill to ban the creation of a fetus solely for the purpose of using its body parts for research -- a procedure that even the bill's sponsors say has not been practiced.

The House had been expected to pass both Tuesday night under expedited procedures that require approval by a two-thirds majority so Bush could sign both today at the same time he casts his veto.

But the bill backing alternative stem cell research fell a few votes short of passing by the two-thirds requirement. GOP leaders may bring the bill back later this week for approval under routine procedures requiring a simple majority.

The bill to ban so-called fetal farming passed unanimously.

In more than five years as president, Bush as of Monday had signed 1,129 bills. He has threatened to veto 141. Snow said Bush had not followed through on those threats because Congress "has come back and given him what he's wanted."

The dispute over stem cell research spurred the first nationally televised speech of Bush's presidency, in August 2001, when he unveiled his policy allowing federal funding only for research on stem cell lines in existence at the time.

Scientists have pushed for lifting that restriction, in part because the stem cell lines available under Bush's edict have proved more limited than anticipated.

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