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Alternate Pushed for Stem Cells

Senate Republican leaders appear to be making some headway in convincing wavering Members to support an alternative stem-cell research bill that could siphon off votes for a bipartisan House-passed measure that President Bush has threatened to veto.

Both sides continue to say that supporters of the broad embryonic stem-cell research bill passed by the House will likely get the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster. However, those public pronouncements are obscuring a flurry of behind-the-scenes wrangling by both supporters and opponents prior to an anticipated vote next week.

“Opponents of this bill are trying to muddy the waters,” warned Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). “These alternative approaches [to stem-cell research] are currently nothing but theories.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has been working to craft an alternative to the House bill that appears to have the support of at least two Republicans — Sens. Johnny Isakson (Ga.) and George Allen (Va.) — who previously had been counted by stem-cell research backers as likely supporters of the House measure.

The House-passed measure would allow the federally funded National Institutes of Health to pay for stem-cell studies on human embryos that are already slated for destruction, while the Frist alternative — which was not available for review by press time — would encourage NIH to develop methods of extracting stem cells from embryos without destroying them. Those methods do not currently exist.

Supporters of the House bill say current methods of embryonic stem-cell research show the most promise in finding cures to Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and spinal cord injuries, among other maladies.

Allen — who is considered a likely presidential contender in 2008 — declined to say whether he was leaning against voting for the House bill, but indicated that he has concerns about the ethics of destroying embryos in the course of extracting stem cells for research.

“I’m looking at a way you can get a convergence of ethics, science and the proper funding,” Allen said. “If that can be done, we’ll advance science, and it doesn’t have the ethical concerns associated with pure embryonic stem-cell research.”

However, in an appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire” in January 2003, Allen expressed no such concerns.

“I’m very much in favor of research on stem cells from embryos for Parkinson’s, for juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer’s and so forth,” he said, according to a transcript. “And I think that from those embryos that could otherwise be discarded or destroyed, I think that we should go forward and research in that area.”

When asked Wednesday about the fact that many of the embryos to be used for research under the House bill would be destroyed or discarded anyway, Allen questioned whether the federal government should be in the business of funding such research.

“It’s not as if the federal government is the only one conducting research” on stem cells, Allen noted, citing California and Massachusetts as states that currently fund embryonic stem-cell studies.

The apparent change in position comes as Allen faces the reality that religious conservatives — who generally oppose using embryos for stem-cell research — are a crucial subset of the Republican presidential primary base.

Isakson, who has positioned himself as a centrist, particularly on abortion and other social issues, was considered a potential GOP ally by supporters of stem-cell research until he revealed weeks ago that he was working with Frist on an alternative.

“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 before the July Fourth recess. It was unclear whether Isakson would vote for both the House measure and Frist’s bill.

Frist’s ability to peel off Senators like Allen and Isakson is the chief worry for supporters of the House bill, especially as they continue talks with Frist over a unanimous consent request to bring up as many as six separate stem-cell and cloning measures.

“I’ve made it very clear [to Frist] that we don’t want bills that will draw away support from the House bill,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a rare “pro-life” Senator who supports embryonic stem-cell research. “We won’t have a unanimous consent request unless it’s fair.”

Hatch and other supporters indicated that no unanimous consent request would be acceptable until they had seen the elusive Frist alternative, as well as a proposed measure by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) that would expand the number of stem-cell lines available for research to the 400,000 currently existing while banning the creation of embryos for any kind of scientific research.

Hutchison has not yet decided whether to offer her bill, which would be an extension of a current Bush executive order allowing federal funding of research on embryonic stem-cell lines created before August 2001, according to GOP sources.

One senior GOP aide predicted that Democratic leaders and GOP backers of the House bill will eventually agree to the unanimous consent request to vote on the House bill, the Frist measure, the Hutchison bill, a complete ban on human cloning that would include stem-cell research, a ban on the creation of human-animal genetic hybrids, and a bill to federally fund stem-cell research on bone marrow and umbilical cord blood.

Indeed, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), the author of the bans on cloning and human-animal hybrids, said he would object to any unanimous consent request that did not include votes on his bills.

Hatch and other Senate Republican and Democratic sponsors of legislation identical to the House measure ratcheted up the rhetoric Wednesday in a press conference with actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease and is a stem-cell advocate.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) warned against voting for any “alternative stalking horses,” and Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.) warned that anyone voting against the House bill but for an alternative would be “voting to delay medical research indefinitely.”

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