WASHINGTON—Congress is poised to give final approval this week to legislation that would broadly expand embryonic stem-cell research, which would mark a turning point in the futuristic struggle between science and religious morality that's divided the Republican Party.
But in practical terms, the key Senate vote expected Tuesday is more likely to set a political landmark than to dump hundreds of millions of federal tax dollars into research toward cures for Parkinson's disease, diabetes and cancer.
That's because President Bush is expected to kill the bill with his first veto, one the Republican-controlled Congress apparently lacks the votes to override.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., suggested last week that a veto isn't a foregone conclusion.
"Once it passes the Senate, there will be an outcry from the American people to President Bush," Reid said. He called on "the good will of the president to help millions and millions of people who all they have left is hope and a prayer."
But, strategically, Democrats trying to regain control of Congress in fall midterm elections think they could turn a veto by Bush and "no" votes by Republicans to their advantage in House and Senate races across the country.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee already has run ads attacking Republicans who support Bush's funding limits on stem-cell research.
"Especially in suburban districts, Republicans are not going to be able to defend their opposition to lifesaving research," DCCC spokesman Bill Burton said. "We think this is going to be a critical issue."
Strategists are eyeing House and Senate races in Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Washington state, Missouri, Virginia and Ohio.
When debate begins Monday, senators will consider three stem-cell bills at once. Two were included to assuage conservative senators opposed to the research: One would prevent embryos from being harvested solely to get stem cells for research—called "fetal farming"—while the other would encourage research alternatives that don't destroy embryos.
The most significant—and most controversial—bill would lift long-standing Bush administration limits on which stem-cell lines can be used in federally funded research. Embryos stored at fertility clinics and otherwise slated for destruction could be brought into the mix.
In 2001, President Bush limited federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research to existing lines of stem cells, citing moral concerns. He and other opponents, who generally also oppose abortion, say the government must stand firm against research that destroys embryos in the process. They note that the administration's limits don't apply to private- or state-funded research.
Supporters of the legislation counter that the embryos in question are taken from fertility clinics and would be squandered otherwise. They say that limiting federal funding delays the possibility of finding lifesaving cures for debilitating diseases.
"The private money can never measure up to the level of federally funded research that has been so successful over the decades in curing diseases," said Donn Rubin of the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, a proponent of embryonic stem-cell research.
"The National Institutes of Health and its funding is what drives the direction of medical research. ... Without this (bill) passing, our country will miss an opportunity to speed medical progress."
Research on adult stem-cell lines isn't as controversial, but many scientists say it's also less promising.
Polls show that about 70 percent of Americans support embryonic stem-cell research, buoyed by public appeals from celebrities such as actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease.
But the issue splits Republicans, and a majority of social conservatives—the party's active and influential base—oppose it.
The bill's opponents say no progress should come at the expense of human life, and they say that's what an embryo is.
"We can't use humans as lab rats," said Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who's a leading opponent of embryonic stem-cell research. "You're researching on young humans. You let that human grow, he becomes a full-scale person by anybody's definition."
Many high-profile Republicans support the research, including former first lady Nancy Reagan, conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, a physician who opposes abortion.
Frist acknowledged the complexities of the issue Friday as he prepared colleagues for the debate: "It's uncomfortable, it's challenging, it causes each of us to go back and study the science, which can be confusing for everyone."
The NIH spends about $30 billion a year funding medical research. Since 2002, it's spent $94 million funding human embryonic stem-cell research and $371 million funding animal embryonic stem-cell research.
Brownback derided embryonic stem-cell research, noting that it hasn't yet resulted in treatments: "It's not producing."
Research proponents say it's far too soon to make such an assertion, especially given the limited resources afforded it.
"No new field in biomedical research results in cures overnight," said William Neaves, the president and chief executive officer of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Mo., which conducts adult and embryonic stem-cell research.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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