WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of senators vowed Wednesday to push for a quick vote on legislation to ease restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, the second congressional challenge to President Bush on the issue in two days.
The move came the day after the House passed an identical stem-cell measure, which Bush said he would veto if it reached his desk.
Supporters say greater federal support for such research is needed to speed the development of cures and treatments for serious illnesses. But Bush and other opponents say the federal government should not expand research that requires the destruction of human embryos, from which stem cells are derived.
The emotionally charged issue has propelled the president into a rare public confrontation with a significant group of fellow Republicans in Congress. He also seems at odds with the views of a majority of Americans, who polls show support embryonic stem-cell research even though it requires destroying embryos.
Bush said his position is based on his determination to promote “a culture of life” by protecting human life from the moment of conception.
He added, “There must be a balance between science and ethics. And I’ve made my decision as to how best achieve that balance.”
Bush authorized the first federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research in August 2001, but with strict limitations.
In order to avoid an incentive for destroying more embryos, Bush limited government funding to research involving stem cells that already had been taken from embryos.
Supporters of such research say many of the lines initially thought to be available turned out to be unobtainable or of limited use. The House bill would expand the number of stem-cell lines eligible for federally funded research.
Scientists are interested in stem cells from embryos because they are believed to have the ability to grow into any type of cell or tissue of the body. Under the House measure, the stem cells in federally funded experiments could come only from embryos donated by fertility clinic patients that had been slated for destruction.
The legislation’s prospects in the Senate are uncertain. Although supporters say they believe they have the votes to pass it, they may be unable to persuade Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to bring it to the floor.
Also, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., has threatened to filibuster the measure if it does come to a vote.
If the measure were to pass in the Senate and be sent to Bush, it seems unlikely that a veto could be overridden. For instance, the House vote fell well short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
“That bill that passed the House yesterday is not going to become law,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, predicted Wednesday.
But Senate supporters of expanded stem cell-research say they are undeterred by the opposition or the political odds.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., both social conservatives, joined Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and three senior Democratic senators to say they intended to push ahead.
Specter, who is battling Hodgkins disease and has lost most of his hair during chemotherapy, said that he “barely recognizes himself” anymore. For him and many other Americans facing serious illness, Specter said, “not to have the best medical care is simply atrocious.”