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Common Ground on Stem Cells?

Senators Seek Consensus Bill

A group of Republican Senators is working quietly on new embryonic stem-cell legislation intended to appease scientists while also avoiding a potentially politically damaging presidential veto.

President Bush is opposed to providing federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research that causes the embryo to be destroyed. Bush has vowed to veto any stem-cell bill that he believes does not honor the sanctity of life.

The stem-cell issue is being framed by advocates on either side as one of morality and hope, and it has prompted a division in the Republican ruling majority in Congress. Against the objections of GOP leaders, the House approved a measure in May that would allow federal funds to be used for embryonic stem-cell research.

The Senate is expected to approve the bill at some point later this year, putting Bush in the position of having to follow through on his veto threat — a power he has not yet used in his presidency — unless another option is presented.

The basis of the still-to-be drafted Senate bill would allow for federal funds to be used for embryonic stem-cell research, but would require that the embryo not be harmed during the process.

Several Republicans said Congress should be promoting a technique currently used during genetic testing and in vitro fertilization that allows for a stem cell to be taken from the embryo without destroying it.

“We are trying to see if we can find some ground that allows for research to continue,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.). “Even though I question the potential of that research, nevertheless it is an area that the scientific community wants to do research and we want to make sure it is done in an ethical way.”

Santorum said the discussions include Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) as well as rank-and-file Members.

Enzi’s panel approved a different stem-cell measure last week that promotes the use of stem cells extracted from cord blood and bone marrow. A similar bill has already passed the House, but many people do not believe these cells hold as much healing potential as embryonic stem cells.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who is involved in the talks about the safe extraction of stem cells from embryos, said he thinks that this compromise bill would appease people on both sides of the debate.

“My position is, if there is a way to develop a stem cell without destroying an embryo, then that is where [the National Institutes of Health] should be making their investment, because the ethical and moral questions to me go away,” Isakson said.

Many Republicans such as Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), advocate the use of adult and cord blood stem cells but are ardent opponents of harming an embryo for its stem cells.

But researchers argue that embryonic stem cells are more valuable than adult and cord blood stem cells and might be used in the future to treat diseases. While embryonic stem-cell research is not outlawed, advocates of the procedure contend that federal funding is crucial to help speed up research.

Brownback said he would oppose any measure that would result in harming an embryo.

“To me this about life,” Brownback said. “However it plays out this is about life. You can’t compromise about that. You have got to stand for life.”

In addition to prompting a scientific debate, the stem-cell question has a significant political undercurrent that could be a part of the issues discussed in the 2006 elections.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) predicted that Congressional Republicans would pay a political price in November 2006 if Bush vetoes an embryonic stem-cell research bill.

“By him being so stubborn about it, it is sad for the country but it is going to be very harmful, I think, for the Republicans,” Boxer said.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called on Frist last week to schedule a Senate debate on the embryonic stem-cell bill following the July Fourth Congressional recess.

Some Republicans grudgingly acknowledged that a presidential veto might not be received well by many voters. They compared such a scenario to the GOP’s decision to involve Congress in the Terri Schiavo matter earlier this year. Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman, was at the center of a bitter family struggle over whether her feeding tube should be removed. Despite Congress’ intervention, Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed and she eventually died.

“The party took a hit on the whole Schiavo incident, and this has the same potential,” said Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.).

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) warned Democrats not to try to politicize the stem-cell debate. The Mississippi Republican said any attempt to do so would make him and perhaps other Republicans who currently support embryonic stem-cell research to withdraw their support.

“Not only would it make me not want to, but I am just going to say, ‘No, I ain’t going to do it,’” Lott said.

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who is involved in the discussions to forge a compromise bill, said this just might be a way to promote scientific research, while sidestepping a potentially divisive battle over the use of embryonic stem cells.

“This is a way to ethically federally fund promising scientific research,” Allen said. “This may be a way of getting the parties together.”

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