RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The usually reliable Republican House yesterday defied both its leaders and President Bush. By a vote of 238 to 194, members approved a bill that would expand federal funding of research using stem cells from human embryos. President Bush has vowed to veto the measure, but that's only if it gets past determined opponents in the Senate. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.
JULIE ROVNER reporting:
House Republican leaders only allowed the vote on the stem cell bill after a group of moderate Republicans threatened to torpedo the must-pass budget resolution. The stem cell bill, sponsored by Delaware Republican Michael Castle, would ease restrictions imposed by President Bush to allow funding of new stem cell lines created from embryos left over from in vitro fertilizations. But while he let it come to the floor, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay made his feelings about the bill crystal clear.
Representative TOM DeLAY (House Majority Leader): Proponents of the Castle bill, try as they might to find wiggle room, will vote to fund with taxpayer dollars the dismemberment of living, distinct human beings for the purposes of medical experimentation.
ROVNER: Indeed, while backers of the bill repeatedly referred to frozen embryos left over from in vitro procedures, opponents challenged that characterization. Republican Chris Smith of New Jersey said one agency alone has facilitated the adoption of 96 frozen embryos to infertile couples.
Representative CHRIS SMITH (Republican, New Jersey): I've met some of those kids. They're not leftovers. Even through they lived in a frozen orphanage, perhaps many for years, they're just as human and alive and full of promise as other children.
ROVNER: President Bush hosted several of those children in the East Room of the White House yesterday afternoon as he reiterated his veto threat against the legislation.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: This bill would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life. Crossing this line would be a great mistake.
ROVNER: But backers of the bill said that preserving embryos that could potentially relieve suffering is itself a mistake. Jim Ramstad is a Republican from Minnesota.
Representative JIM RAMSTAD (Republican, Minnesota): To reduce this issue to an abortion issue is a horrible injustice to 100 million Americans suffering the ravages of diabetes, spinal cord paralysis, heart disease, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, cancer, MS, Lou Gehrig's disease and other fatal, debilitating diseases.
ROVNER: The bill also won some surprising converts, including House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton of Texas. He was one of the sponsors of a less-controversial bill, which passed 431-to-1, to expand research on adult stem cells, but he surprised many when he announced he would vote for the Castle bill as well.
Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): Maybe the breakthrough's going to come in adult stem cells. I hope it does. I would love for it. But maybe, just maybe, it's going to come because of embryonic stem cells.
ROVNER: Both bills now head to the Senate, where another major battle awaits. Bipartisan backers of companion embryonic stem cell legislation, led by Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter and Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, wasted no time. Within minutes of House passage, they sent off a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist urging a vote on the bill as soon as possible, and they called a news conference for this afternoon.
But opponents aren't giving up, either. Kansas Republican Sam Brownback said he'd already told leaders, quote, "that we must do everything we can procedurally to stop unethical embryonic stem cell research in the Senate." That's Senate code for the filibuster Republicans have been threatening to eliminate.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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