Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) said Wednesday that he’s hoping to fashion a compromise bill on stem-cell research — and that he is willing to defy President Bush to do it.
Coleman’s entry last week into the controversial debate is part of why the Senate has been unable to take up the issue before adjourning for the August recess.
But Coleman said he believes his proposal to expand stem-cell research, while barring federal funding for the destruction of human embryos, could gain enough support in Congress to override an expected Bush veto.
“The president’s position is not pro-science today,” Coleman said. “I’m someone who is pro-research, pro-hope, and I’m also pro-life.”
Coleman added that he’s already heard from White House officials that they oppose his approach. “In the end,” he added, “the president is going to veto whatever we do,” Coleman said. “We need to be able to put together enough of a coalition to overcome the veto.”
Indeed, a coalition of Democrats and centrist Republicans have been pushing for a Senate vote on a House-passed bill — which is vigorously opposed by Bush — that would allow federal funding for stem-cell research on human embryos that are slated to be destroyed by fertility clinics anyway.
Though Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) agreed to hold a vote on the House bill this month, objections from Coleman and others over whether to vote on a total of six anti-cloning and stem-cell research bills has so far prevented the Senate from acting.
In fact, Coleman said that unless his bill is included in any unanimous consent agreement on stem-cell votes, he would use his power to object to prevent the Senate from acting. He said he believes the other bills are simply designed “to make a political statement” and are doomed to fail anyway.
Coleman’s bill would expand the number of stem-cell lines available for federal funding from those created by Aug. 9, 2001, to those created as of this year. Bush prohibited federal funding for stem cells gleaned from human embryos beyond the 2001 date.
“The logical thing to do is take the line the president drew four years ago and draw it again today,” explained Coleman. “He’s refusing to recognize the limitations of what he did based on when he did it.”
Indeed, many stem-cell research backers complain that Bush’s 2001 executive order only allows research on stem-cell lines that are contaminated and therefore not suitable for human trials should any potential cures for diseases be developed from them. Coleman said his bill would expand those lines from barely 70 to “hundreds” of uncontaminated lines from which the embryos have already been destroyed.
Still, the Democrats and Republicans pushing the House bill have so far reacted coolly to Coleman’s bill, saying it appears to be one more attempt to give wavering Senators political cover on the stem-cell issue, which is popular with many voters but not with anti-abortion groups who see the destruction of embryos as tantamount to killing an unborn baby.
“The issue is not taking away votes,” said Coleman. “The issue is whether you have something that will become law.”
Still, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a primary Senate sponsor of the House bill, said Coleman may be just muddying the waters, rather than helping to boost stem-cell research. Hatch has also said his goal is to get 67 votes for the House bill in order to override a Bush veto.
“You have to reach a point where you go with what you’ve got,” said Hatch of his agreement to vote on the six bills Frist proffered. A seventh bill, he suggested, would lead to as many as 10 more Senators asking for votes on their bills too.
Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, said it was encouraging that Coleman, as an opponent of abortion rights, “is taking a step in our direction. We appreciate some support for research, but why limit it?”
On the other side, anti-abortion Senators are also resisting Coleman’s measure, saying it would create a slippery slope that could open the door to federal funding of research that involves the destruction of human embryos.
But Coleman said he emphasizes that the embryos from which the stem cell lines included in his bill would come from have already been destroyed.
“If someone was murdered, you couldn’t use their organs?” is his standard response to critics.
Still, Coleman acknowledged that he has an uphill battle in convincing both sides to accept his proposal.
“I’m just starting my conversations,” he said. “Most of my colleagues when they listen and think it through, they’re very interested.”
And he has time to try to convince them. Because Frist did not reach an agreement on how to bring up stem cells with Coleman nor Senate Democrats this month, the issue probably won’t see the light of day again until September — at the earliest.