Stem-cell proponents turn up the volume

On the first anniversary of the House’s vote to pass legislation expanding federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells, the bill’s Senate supporters continue to exert public pressure on Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to put the measure to a vote.

The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR) will hold a press event this morning in the park next to the Russell Senate Office Building that will feature patients stricken with ailments that, research supporters maintain, could be treated with therapies developed using the science.

The patients and CAMR representatives will be joined at the event by the bipartisan group of lawmakers who have pushed the bill in both chambers.

The office of Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) said yesterday that he and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo), the House bill’s sponsors, will be there with Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Specter and Hatch have been the lead negotiators in drawn-out talks to bring the bill to the Senate floor and have claimed the commitments of more than 60 senators to vote for the bill.

If that vote count is accurate, the measure would pass comfortably and President Bush would be forced either to choose between vetoing it as promised or reversing himself and allowing the bill to become law.

Congressional Democrats, particularly in the Senate, amplified their rhetoric as the anniversary approached. Frist surprised Democrats and Republicans last July when he endorsed the bill, but he has yet to hammer out an agreement with opponents on bringing it the floor with protection from “poison pill” amendments.

Frist also has to consider his presidential ambitions. Although most polls indicate a high level of support for stem-cell research even among Republicans, opponents of abortion rights — a crucial primary-election voting bloc — have fought vehemently against the bill.

Democrats question Frist’s commitment to a vote on the bill. During the Senate’s “Health Week” this month, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) led the party’s assault on the GOP leadership’s refusal to address a broader array of healthcare issues, including stem cells.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called yesterday for a vote on the bill at an event yesterday with DeGette.

National Democrats view embryonic stem cells as a political issue and have emphasized that public opinion is squarely on the side of the majority of Democrats who support more research. Strategists describe stem cells as a potential wedge issue Democrats can use to claim they share the priorities of most Americans.

According to a CAMR-sponsored opinion poll, 72 percent of Americans support more embryonic-stem-cell research and 24 percent oppose it. Most polls have demonstrated steadily growing support for the science since Bush set the guidelines on federal funding of it in August 2001.

Liberal pressure groups have also worked to draw attention to the issue. An organization called the Campaign to Defend the Constitution, for example, bought a full-page ad in The New York Times yesterday that said the bill was “held hostage by religious extremists who hold enormous sway over Majority Leader Bill Frist.” Above photographs of the Christian-right leaders Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson appears the ironic headline, “Meet America’s most influential stem cell scientists.”

Amid an atmosphere in which Democrats and allied organizations have repeatedly assailed Frist for not moving more quickly, Republican supporters of the bill have continued to engage Frist and the bill’s opponents in behind-the-scenes negotiations.

Specter and Frist must contend with a deeply divided Senate Republican Conference. Many GOP senators oppose all forms of embryonic research and object to the scientific methods used in this area, which they liken to human cloning.

For more than a year, Frist has been trying to obtain an agreement to allow stand-alone votes on the Specter bill, Sen. Sam Brownback’s (R-Kan.) human-cloning-ban legislation and a third, as-yet-undetermined bill that would probably promote theoretical stem-cell research that would not require the destruction of human embryos. A deal has been elusive.

The use of stem cells in congressional politicking and electoral races across the country could complicate the talks by stiffening resistance to a vote among opponents of research on embryonic stem cells.

Nevertheless, Specter remains publicly upbeat about the chances of a vote this year. Frist last week reiterated his support for a bill and his commitment to a vote, saying, “I expect it this summer.” Specter later said “My hunch is that it will be in June.”