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The House defied its leaders and President Bush today by approving a bill to expand federal funding for research on stem cells derived from human embryos. The vote was 238-to-194. Moments later, members overwhelmingly approved a second bill to boost federal funding for adult stem-cell studies. That measure passed 431-to-1. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.
JULIE ROVNER reporting:
In the tightly controlled House, it's rare for a bill to reach the floor against the wishes of Republican leaders, but that's exactly what happened today. Two months ago, a group of moderate Republicans, led by Michael Castle of Delaware, threatened to withhold their votes on a must-pass budget resolution. What they got from the leadership was a promise for an up-or-down vote on Castle's stem-cell bill.
The bill would ease limits imposed by President Bush in 2001. Those limits allowed federal funding for stem cells derived from human embryos, but only on cell lines that were already in existence as of the date the policy was imposed. Here's how the president described it during an appearance this afternoon with children from the Snowflake adoption program who were adopted as leftover frozen embryos.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: This policy set a clear standard: We should not use public money to support the further destruction of human life.
ROVNER: Castle's bill would allow the creation of new embryonic stem cells, but only from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures and under strict ethical standards. Still, the president vowed to veto the bill last week, and a formal statement of policy reiterated his threat today. But over on the House floor, many members who described themselves as pro-life said they were breaking with the president and backing Castle's bill. Among them was Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin, who uses a wheelchair as the result of an accident at age 16.
Representative JIM LANGEVIN (Democrat, Rhode Island): To me, being pro-life also means fighting for policies that will eliminate pain and suffering and help people enjoy longer, healthier lives. And to me, support for embryonic stem-cell research is entirely consistent with that position.
ROVNER: But some members went the other way, including Republican Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania. He has diabetes, one of the diseases some say embryonic stem-cell research could one day treat or cure.
Representative CURT WELDON (Republican, Pennsylvania): In the end, Mr. Speaker, this is a very personal decision. It's one that I agonized over. I'm not a medical professional. I consulted with all four of my friends who are medical doctors in this chamber. They have studied medicine. They understand medical research. They understand bioethics far greater than I ever will. And I come down on their side; I come down on the side of life.
ROVNER: In an effort to give opponents of Castle's bill like Weldon something to vote for, leaders first presented a bill to authorize $79 million over five years for a measure that would expand research on stem cells from umbilical cord blood and create a clearinghouse to link patients with available units of cord blood. Majority Leader Tom DeLay correctly predicted its broad backing.
Representative TOM DeLAY (Republican, Texas; Majority Leader): It will pass with bipartisan support because none of its provisions predicate its available funding upon the destruction of human life.
ROVNER: The cord blood bill drew its strongest backing from those who opposed the embryonic cell bill, like Republican Mike Pence of Indiana.
Representative MIKE PENCE (Republican, Indiana): I believe it is morally wrong to destroy human embryos for the purposes of research. But I believe it is doubly morally wrong to force millions of pro-life Americans to see their tax dollars used to support research that they find morally offensive.
ROVNER: But many members, including New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt, said they would support both bills.
Representative RUSH HOLT (Democrat, New Jersey): Supporting cord blood research at the expense of supporting embryonic stem-cell research is like buying a Schwinn bicycle to travel across the country: potentially useful, but it's not likely to get you there.
ROVNER: A companion bill in the Senate has similarly strong bipartisan support, but as in the House, it's opposed by Republican leaders in that chamber. Backers say they'll start pushing Majority Leader Bill Frist today to bring the bill to the floor. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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