Stem Cell Showdown Nears Between President and Congress

The Congress may be nearing a confrontation with the White House over stem cell research. Lynn Neary talks to Juan Williams about the debate facing the president over increased funding for stem cell research. The president and some of his supporters have tied the research to the issue of abortion.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Now, another issue before the Senate. When lawmakers return from their July 4th recess, a debate to increase funding for stem cell research is expected to be at the top of the agenda.

President Bush remains opposed to expanded federal support for the research and has pledged to veto the latest bill. NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams joins me now to discuss the politics of the issue.

Juan, explain this latest proposal for us.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Lynn, it's the same language that was used in a bill passed by the House just last year. That bill permitted research with federal dollars on embryos discarded by patients at fertility clinics. Scientists believe those stem cells may be valuable for research on repairing spinal cord injuries, as well as in combating Parkinson's, cancer, diabetes and other illnesses.

Some opponents, however, argue that because extracting stem cells leads to the death of the embryos, it can, therefore, be viewed as a step towards American society expanding its embrace of abortion.

NEARY: And the president's position on this?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, last week, a White House spokesman said the president will not be forced into a position where he has to choose between science and ethics. The president has argued that embryos are human life and extremely vulnerable to abuse.

In 2001, the president issued an executive order barring federal dollars from research on stem cells collected after August of that year. Regarding this proposal, Lynn, a White House spokesman says the president feels the current bill crosses an important moral line and that the bill will be vetoed by the Bush White House.

One of the interesting things in this new debate is that it really pits Republicans in the Senate against their allies, the Bush White House.

NEARY: And can the Senate pass the bill and override a presidential veto?

WILLIAMS: Lynn, the votes appear in place to pass the bill with a 60-vote super majority of the Senate, according to a variety of sources, but the bill will have to get two-thirds of the Senate to withstand a presidential veto. Again, the votes seem to be in place.

It was last summer after the House vote that Senator Frist announced that he was breaking with the president on less restrictive federal funding for stem cell research. Four states have since passed bills to dedicate money for research on stem cells collected after that date.

California has pledged $3 billion. In addition, private universities, such as Harvard, have collected private money for research.

NEARY: It's taken a year for the Senate to follow up on the House vote. Why so long?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, Senator Frist has been negotiating with Senators concerned about the implications of the bill. The politics are very tricky for conservative abortion opponents. What the Senate majority leader has done is to bring the main bill up with two others.

The key bill is the one to allow federal funding for research on embryos discarded at fertility clinics, and there's another bill to increase funding for research on other ways to find stem cells, such as from adults. That would eliminate this need for stem cells from embryos.

NEARY: Now, the former first lady Nancy Reagan has been very out front on this issue, very active about it. Has she pushed the Senate to act?

WILLIAMS: Oh, yes. And, you know, it's not just Nancy Reagan. I mean, you had Dana Reeves, Superman's widow, before she died, and so, too, are polls that show about 70 percent of Americans support the research. The issue has become a problem for some Republican Senators in ongoing tight reelection campaigns right now, and that's further prompted the Senate to act.

In a May letter to Senator Orrin Hatch, though, Nancy Reagan did write that it's been nearly a year since the House passed a stem cell research bill and she said the wait for the Senate to act has been, quote, "very difficult and hard to comprehend." President Reagan's widow said there's no more time to wait and called for immediate action, despite the opposition coming from the Republicans in the Bush White House.

NEARY: Of course, Nancy Reagan carries a great deal of moral weight on this issue, I think, given her relationship with her husband, the way that she dealt with his illness. So, something that particularly conservatives may be torn in terms of…

WILLIAMS: Oh, absolutely! You know, there were 50 Republicans in the House, again, who broke with the White House to support that bill. And so the fact that you had Nancy Reagan leading the charge in the House - now leading the charge in the Senate, I think really has forced the issue and allowed Republicans to break from President Bush and created a dilemma for this Bush White House.

But, so far, the president is holding strong and promising - you know, he hasn't used a veto once yet, but promising to veto this bill. I think this could be a fascinating scientific - but also from the political perspective - a fascinating political fight that we're about to see, Lynn.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for joining us today, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome.

NEARY: NPR Senior Correspondent, Juan Williams.

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