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Stem-Cell Bill to Rise Again After Easter

A high-profile Senate vote on stem-cell research likely will wait until after the April recess, but Democrats and Republicans say they are close to agreeing on a streamlined debate process.

Enactment of a measure expanding stem-cell research has been heralded as a top priority for Congressional Democrats. But with must-pass items such as the budget and an emergency war spending bill on tap before Congress leaves for recess the first week of April, and debates on Iraq and fired U.S. attorneys crowding this week’s agenda, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) now expects to bring up the bipartisan stem-cell bill after Easter, his spokesman Jim Manley said.

Reid will be pushing a bill that passed both chambers last year but was vetoed by President Bush — a likely outcome for the measure again this year. The bill, which is supported by most Democrats and several centrist Republicans, would allow federal funding of research on stem cells derived from human embryos that are donated by fertility clinics and would be slated for destruction anyway.

But unlike last year — when then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) initially tried to secure floor votes on as many as six bills related to stems cells and cloning to satisfy anti-abortion-rights lawmakers concerned about the destruction of human embryos — Republican leaders said they are beginning to unite this year behind a single alternative measure being pushed by GOP Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.).

Manley said it is likely that Reid will propose a debate agreement that would allow Republicans to offer one or two alternatives.

While the Coleman-Isakson bill is still being developed, Coleman said the proposal “doesn’t cross the moral line” by funding stem-cell research that involves the destruction of a human embryo. Instead, the bill would allow federal funding of other types of stem-cell research — such as those derived from placentas and adults — that don’t involve having to harm human embryos.

“I hope it’ll provide common ground for those like me who want to see scientific research go forward, but are concerned about sacrificing human life,” said Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Cornyn (Texas).

Even Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who last year had demanded that any vote on a stem-cell bill be accompanied by votes on his measures to ban human cloning and the creation of animal-human hybrids, said he would not try to force Democrats to take those votes this year.

“In looking at the overall setting that we’re in, we’re not going to be able to get a clean human cloning vote again,” Brownback said. He added, “We’re in a defensive position now with Democrats pursuing an aggressive human research agenda.”

Brownback said the Coleman-Isakson bill “is something I feel like I can support.”

And as they did in 2006, many anti-abortion Republicans are looking to the Coleman-Isakson measure to provide some political cover for their likely votes against the Democratic-sponsored measure.

“People will have something to vote for. They won’t have to just vote against something,” said Senate Chief Deputy Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “I think there’s a way to get a positive outcome on this [for Republicans] and not just trying to vote against whatever the Democrats are putting forward.”

Plus, Coleman said the expected inability of the Democratic-led Congress to override the president’s veto gives his proposal more weight, because it would at least expand the current federal funding of stem-cell research beyond the limited pool Bush approved in 2001.

At least, that’s the argument he plans to use on Republicans who support the Democratic proposal to try to get the entire Conference behind his bill.

Voting for the Democrats’ proposal and not his proposal would be foolish, he said.

“You’ll cast a message vote and won’t expand the research at all,” Coleman said. But he acknowledged he’s going to have a tough time selling that message with centrist Republicans.

“We’ll see. It’s early,” he said.

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