Senate Readies for Divisive Stem-Cell Vote

The Senate is scheduled to vote on a measure to expand federally funded embryonic stem-cell research. If the measure is approved, it's likely to result in President Bush's first veto. The bill divides Republicans, and could be a factor in midterm Congressional elections.

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JOHN YDSTIE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie, in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The Senate is scheduled to vote today on a measure that would expand federally funded embryonic stem-cell research. If the measure is approved, as expected, it's likely to result in President Bush's first veto. The bill has divided Republicans and it could be a factor in this fall's midterm Congressional elections.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: In 2001, President Bush issued an executive order banning use of federal funds to develop any further embryonic stem-cell lines. The bill before the Senate today would essentially negate that order and allow federal funding to be used to develop new stem-cell lines. Backers say it's necessary because the old lines are running out and some have become contaminated.

It's a personal issue for many lawmakers, among them Republican Senator Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, the measure's chief sponsor.

ARLEN SPECTER: In 1970, President Nixon declared war on cancer. If that war had been pursued with the resources that we pursue other wars, cancer would have been conquered. And I can, of course, speak in a very personal way about that. Had the research in stem-cells been available, I wouldn't have had Hodgkin's.

NAYLOR: Senators will also vote today on two other stem-cell related measures, which are expected to win easy approval. One encourages research into ways of obtaining stem-cells without destroying embryos, the other prohibits use of embryos from so-called fetal farms where they're created specifically for research; it's sponsored by Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, who leads opponents of embryonic stem-cell research. Brownback says removing stem-cells from embryos destroys human life.

SAM BROWNBACK: It is immoral to destroy the youngest of human lives for research purposes. We don't need to do it. It is immoral for us to do it. It is an age-old human debate, whether you allow the stronger to take advantage of the weaker. We have always regretted doing it in the past. We will regret this, too.

NAYLOR: Opponents also argue that embryonic stem-cell research has yet to show much progress and will continue anyway, with or without federal funding. Republican Senator Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma.

TOM COBURN: I hope the American people will understand this isn't a false choice of no research versus some. The research will go forward. The question is is do we destroy unborn children? Number two, and do we do federal dollars to do that?

NAYLOR: The bill Coburn opposes would allow scientists to use federal funding to take stem-cell lines from embryos now kept in cold storage in fertility clinics. The embryos would otherwise be destroyed. Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, of Iowa, supports the measure.

TOM HARKIN: Let's allow couples, if they wish, to donate them to create stem-cell lines that could cure diseases and save lives. So the choice is this: throw them away, or use them to ease suffering and hopefully cure diseases.

NAYLOR: Embryonic stem-cell research is that rare issue that does not follow the normal partisan boundaries in Congress. Many anti-abortion lawmakers oppose it, but others are among its strongest backers, including Republican Orrin Hatch and Senate majority leader Bill Frist. Former First Lady Nancy Reagan has also been an influential supporter. But the president has been unmoved. Yesterday, the White House issued a statement reiterating the president's threat to veto the measure. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein hopes Mr. Bush will yet have a change of heart.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: The bill is going to pass. The bill is going to go to the president. And then we're going to see whether the first veto that the president of the United States makes in his entire political career will be a veto which will dash the hopes of millions of Americans. I hope in my heart of hearts that that's not the case.

NAYLOR: There are other political careers on the line as well. Stem-cell research is an issue in the hotly contested Missouri Senate race. There, Republicans incumbent Jim Talent, who opposes the Senate bill, is also against a state ballot initiative on stem-cell research. His opponent, Democrat Claire McCaskill, favors the ballot measure, as polls indicate most Missouri voters do.

Senate majority leader Frist is running a risk too by distancing himself from conservative Republicans who are likely to be key to winning the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, something Frist has an eye on.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capital.

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