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Stem-Cell Vote Up in Air Due to Busy Calendar

Proponents of stem-cell research say they will continue to push for a vote on their controversial legislation this fall, even though the Senate now has the added tasks of crafting scores of Hurricane Katrina-related bills and approving two Supreme Court nominations this fall.

“The only question now is when to schedule that vote so as not to interrupt the chief justice hearings and vote, and the emergency Senate work on hurricane-relief from Katrina,” said Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, which has been leading the fight for passage of a bill that would expand research on stem cells. “We have been looking at the end of September, mid-October or perhaps later, depending, of course, on the emergency issues now facing the Senators.”

Bill proponent Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) agreed with that assessment.

“I think Katrina blew all the air out of this place,” Smith said. “It’ll take us weeks, maybe a month, to get back to other important issues, of which stem cells is one.”

Resnick and other supporters noted that they became even more confident of winning the legislative fight after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) announced in late July that he would support a House-passed bill that allows unlimited research on stem cells derived from human embryos that are slated for destruction by fertility clinics.

Democratic supporters echoed that sentiment, noting that Frist’s announcement could convince wavering lawmakers to support the bill. That, they believe, would securely put supporters above the filibuster-proof 60 votes they need.

“We still feel very good about where we are votes-wise,” explained Alison Dobson, spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a lead sponsor of the measure in the Senate.

Dobson noted that pro-stem-cell research groups spent much of the August recess trying to convince undecided lawmakers to vote for the bill, which would allow research that supporters hope has the potential to cure or ease any number of diseases and disabilities. But anti-abortion rights groups have been urging lawmakers to oppose the measure, arguing that the destruction of an embryo in the process of extracting stem cells constitutes the taking of a human life.

Even if the measure passes the Senate, President Bush has vowed to veto it.

Despite the supporters’ rosy prognostications, however, Senate consideration, much less approval, is far from a slam dunk.

Just as in the period before Congress left for the August recess, the issue of how, when and what to bring to the Senate floor continues to stymie Frist’s attempts to begin Senate debate. In July, Frist offered to have debate on six different bills: the controversial House-passed bill; another House-passed measure encouraging research on stem cells from bone marrow and umbilical cord blood; a measure sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) to ban human cloning, including some forms of stem-cell research; another Brownback bill to ban the creation of chimeras, or animal-human hybrids; and two other stem-cell measures that would expand stem-cell research, but not to the extent pushed by backers of the House bill, medical professionals and disease advocacy groups.

Senate Democrats, along with Republican proponents of the House bill, balked at the six-bill proposal initially because they said it was intended to “muddy the waters” and give political cover to anti-abortion lawmakers who want to appear to support stem-cell research.

While Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the chief GOP supporters of the House bill, finally agreed to the six-bill approach in late July, Democrats remain wary.

“What we want is for the Senate to simply take up and pass the House-passed bill without amendments,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

And so far this month, lawmakers involved in the dispute have not gotten together to talk about how to bridge the partisan divide. Smith said the last conversation he had about having a stem-cell vote was “before we left in August,” but he added that he still thinks the measure could be squeezed into this year’s floor schedule. Similarly, Brownback said he had not been approached recently about the issue.

However, since the end of July, the stem-cell research landscape has changed somewhat. From Brownback’s point of view, “the science on this has all moved our way over the August recess,” he said.

Indeed, news stories in August abounded with reports of researchers discovering ways to create or extract stem cells from skin cells and adult stem cells, without actually destroying an embryo in the process.

But proponents of relatively unfettered stem-cell research have long argued that those methods are not as reliable as traditional embryonic stem-cell extraction, and thus could jeopardize medical advances. They favor leaving open more avenues of research rather than fewer.

In the meantime, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) remains another obstacle to the six-bill proposal. He has been working on what he considers a compromise bill that would allow researchers to use stem cells derived from embryos within the past four years, but barring the extraction of new stem cells from embryos slated for destruction.

The current policy, set by Bush four years ago, has limited stem-cell research to stem-cell lines created before Aug. 9, 2001. Researchers have complained that those lines are contaminated and cannot be used to pursue cures for diseases.

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