Deal on stem cell vote caught many off-guard

Senators, aides and lobbyists alike were caught off-guard Thursday when word began to circulate that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had, at long last, brokered a deal that would allow a vote on a House-passed stem-cell bill permitting federal dollars to go to more of the controversial but promising medical research.

Frist (R-Tenn.) had been holding meetings with recalcitrant senators and the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), earlier in the week and up until the end of the day Thursday. One by one, Specter said, they persuaded concerned senators to set their objections aside.

Few of Frist and Specter’s fellow senators seem to have been included in those late-stage talks. Aides to lawmakers in both parties confessed to being caught flat-footed by the developments.

Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchGOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border Overnight Defense: States pull National Guard troops over family separation policy | Senators question pick for Afghan commander | US leaves UN Human Rights Council Senate GOP tries to defuse Trump border crisis MORE (R-Utah), one of Specter’s strongest allies on the bill and an important figure in the Senate’s stem-cell debate, said he wasn’t involved in the meetings.

Specter’s co-sponsor, Sen. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinDem Senator open to bid from the left in 2020 Senate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation Trump should require federal contractors to follow the law MORE (D-Iowa), said those involved kept Democrats in the dark until Thursday morning.

“We weren’t given much notice,” Harkin griped to reporters.

He hadn’t seen the terms of the agreement until he went to the floor for a vote at around 3 p.m. When he did, Harkin gleefully waved it in front of a gaggle of reporters.

“This does fulfill [Frist’s] commitment, absolutely,” he said. “This really is what Frist promised he would do.”

Sen. Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziHouse panel to mark up 2019 budget Overnight Defense: Top general defends Afghan war progress | VA shuffles leadership | Pacific Command gets new leader, name | Pentagon sued over HIV policy Senate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA MORE (R-Wyo.), who chairs the Senate’s health committee, which has jurisdiction over stem-cell legislation, professed that he wasn’t in the meetings and didn’t know which senators might be trying to block the deal.

Votes on the bill to ease funding limits for research on embryonic stem cells and two other bills are expected before the end of the month.

Almost a year ago, on July 29, Frist surprised his colleagues and most observers by taking to the Senate floor and announcing his support for embryonic-stem-cell research, which most abortion-rights opponents vehemently reject because embryos are destroyed in the process.

Frist, a presidential hopeful with an anti-abortion voting record, also split with President Bush and set in motion a course of events that could force the president to follow through on his repeated threats and issue the first veto of his more-than-five-year tenure.

Under the terms of a unanimous-consent agreement adopted late Thursday, each bill will not be subject to amendments but must garner 60 votes to pass. Specter, Hatch and their allies have long said they could meet that threshold.

Opponents of embryonic-stem-cell research no doubt will be angry that Frist is calling for a vote but have said they are comforted by the president’s veto threat and the fact that last year’s 238-194 House vote proves the veto wouldn’t be overturned.

Although Frist declined to commit to an exact date for the vote, his vow that the bill will come to the floor brings the Senate closer to a day many of the bill’s supporters and opponents thought might never come.

Thursday afternoon, as uncertainly remained over the future of the stem-cell bill, the anxiety on both sides was palpable.

Word began to circulate late that morning that Frist was going to bring the unanimous-consent agreement to the floor in the early afternoon. But the timing kept slipping, as did speculation about objections and anonymous holds that threatened to hobble the deal at the starting gate.

Numerous Republican and Democratic senators and aides said the Sen. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnMr. President, let markets help save Medicare Pension insolvency crisis only grows as Congress sits on its hands Paul Ryan should realize that federal earmarks are the currency of cronyism MORE (R-Okla.) was planning to object to the agreement, then said he would not, then said they didn’t know. Coburn’s spokesman would not comment on those claims and counterclaims Thursday. When asked whom he'd met with or who might try to stop the bill, Specter coyly smiled and refused to say.        

Beginning at around 3:30 p.m., Democratic aides began to report that the deal had fallen apart. When it seemed that Frist might raise the agreement anyway, knowing that there would be objections, Jim Manley, spokesman for Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidAmendments fuel resentments within Senate GOP Donald Trump is delivering on his promises and voters are noticing Danny Tarkanian wins Nevada GOP congressional primary MORE (D-Nev.), said he was expecting nothing more than “a little bit of kabuki theater” from the Republicans.

Congressional aides and lobbyists first thought the action would take place around lunchtime, then believed Frist would go to the floor between 4 and 6 p.m. At 5, the majority leader’s office notified the Senate Periodical Press Gallery that Frist would address stem cells within minutes.

Minutes before 5, the bill’s chief sponsor, Specter, told The Hill that all obstacles had been cleared.

“We think that there’s not going to be an objection,” Specter said, confident that he had completed a long, hard slog to secure a vote on a bill hated by many of his fellow Republicans.

More than an hour passed before Frist took to the floor at 6:30 p.m. In the meantime, two lengthy quorum calls kept the Senate in session hours after most senators had left to begin their Independence Day recess.

In addition to the House-passed bill, the Senate also will vote on a measure sponsored by Specter and fellow Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum that would promote still-theoretical stem-cell-research methods that would not destroy embryos and a bill from Santorum and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) that would prohibit the buying and selling of tissue from fetuses created expressly for medical research.