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Stem-cell issue headed for Senate floor
McClatchy Newspapers


March 31, 2006

WASHINGTON - Americans who believe embryonic stem cells could one day cure their cancers, their parents' degenerative diseases or their children's diabetes may soon reach a crossroads: a final vote by Congress to lift President Bush's ban on federal funding for research on new embryonic stem cell lines.

Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Orrin Hatch of Utah, two Republicans leading a bipartisan coalition to force such a vote, say the issue should reach the Senate floor sometime in May or June after languishing for months.

They predict they have enough votes to lift the ban and say they believe Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., will make the push. But they say they are prepared to take matters into their own hands should he hesitate.




"I've talked to Senator Frist about it as recently as last week. He's prepared to go ahead," said Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose own diagnosis last year with Hodgkin's disease added momentum to his cause. Hatch, whose otherwise socially conservative track record makes him a powerful ally for proponents of the research, said of Frist, "Now is the right time. He has to bring it up, or we'll bring it up."

If they go forward before Congress recesses for the summer, however, political strategists on both sides of the aisle say they could hand the Democrats a political advantage in this year's midterm elections and impact the Republican presidential primary elections two years from now as well.

Perhaps even more than the discord over how to curb illegal immigration without devastating the economy, the debate over whether research that necessitates the destruction of embryos is tantamount to live-saving science, or murder, is one that divides the Republican Party.

"I think time has passed the Bush position by, to be candid with you," said Frank Carlucci, a former deputy CIA director and a defense secretary under President Ronald Reagan. Carlucci, now 75, is living with Parkinson's disease and favors lifting the ban on federal funding. "It would be a major step forward for science."

Amanda Banks, an analyst with the lobbying arm of the conservative national organization Focus on the Family, disagrees.

"If members who are otherwise pro-life vote in favor of life-destructive stem cell research, they will no longer be pro-life in our view," she said.

"It's a wedge issue, in that it separates the true pro-lifers from the compromisers," Banks said. "Whenever the vote comes, whether it's this year, next year or a later date, we'll be very attentive. If it is voted upon before the election, I think it will be a top-tier issue in the '06 elections."

Ten months ago, the GOP-led House of Representatives put the wheels in motion for this debate, defying Bush's veto threat and voting 238-194 to allow federal money to be spent on research using frozen embryos otherwise slated to be discarded by fertility clinics.

Two months after that, Frist, a physician, took the baton, alienating many social conservatives and gambling with his own prospects for a presidential run in 2008 by saying he too now favored expanded embryonic stem cell research and would bring the matter to a vote.

But the vote never came, postponed by Hurricane Katrina, two Supreme Court confirmations, and protracted debates over spending, military policy and, most recently, immigration.

Overall, Americans increasingly support embryonic stem-cell research as scientists around the world look for ways to use technology to treat elusive diseases. Because embryonic stem cells are so young they don't yet perform specialized tasks, scientists believe they could be trained to repair skin or organs, perhaps even brains, damaged by disease.

Between 2002 and last year, the percentage of adults who found embryonic stem cell research to be morally acceptable rose from 52 to 60, according to the Gallup Poll. Fifty-six percent of Americans said they favor using taxpayer money for the research. And several states, including California, have adopted or are now considering measures that promote stem-cell research.

But among Republican voters, the issue divides ideological moderates from social conservatives. Gallup surveys found Republicans last year evenly divided - 47 percent for and 47 percent against - over the acceptability of embryonic stem cell research. On federal funding, 42 percent of Republicans favored federal funding for the research. Polling also shows different levels of overall public support from state to state.

In simple terms, these trends could make it dangerous for some Republicans who oppose embryonic stem cell research to vote their consciences before the general election; likewise, if the vote comes before the primary election, or a candidate is considering a presidential bid, it could jeopardize some Republican incumbents who favor expanding embryonic stem cell research.

"I think for a lot of Republican candidates dealing with this issue this year, they're basically hiding behind a tree hoping they won't have to take a position," said Phil Singer of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "They're nervous about alienating the majority of people who back this kind of research but they're even more nervous about alienating their political base."


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