Stem-cell supporters pressure Frist to bring the issue to the Senate floor

Proponents of expanding stem-cell research are beginning to roll out their strategies for raising awareness of the issue in hopes of compelling Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to set aside time for debate.

Frist will face a multipronged offensive that will include Republicans who support the bill, Democrats savoring a political issue that puts them on the same side as a majority of Americans, and both camps’ allies outside of Congress.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the bill’s sponsor, and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) plan to renew the regular strategy meetings the two stem-cell supporters held last July, when a bill to loosen rules on federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research came close to a Senate vote.

Specter and Hatch had not taken their eyes off the stem-cell bill since last year, Senate aides said. These aides acknowledged, though, that the two senators’ attention has not been as focused as it was last spring and summer, when the stem-cell issue achieved heightened awareness in Washington and across the country.

The House passed the companion bill in May, but President Bush has promised to veto it if it moves through the Senate.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have begun their own effort to draw attention to the lack of action on the bill.

Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called on Frist to hold a vote by May 25, the one-year anniversary of the House vote.

“There are a number of very important issues that this body ought to consider this session, but few are as important to the American people as stem-cell legislation that could provide medical breakthroughs that would benefit hundreds of millions of people,” Reid said.

Reid believes Democrats need to turn up the volume and create pressure on Frist to take on the stem-cell bill because he does not believe Frist will abide by his vow to make time for debate, according to Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), the lead Democratic sponsor of the bill, said that Harkin will continue to work with Specter and Hatch and is hopeful that a vote will take place. Democrats are more skeptical than their GOP counterparts, however. “It’s been promises, promises, promises,” she said.

Democrats could score political points regardless of the Senate’s action. Senate Democrats could claim a measure of credit for a successful vote on the stem-cell bill. If Frist does not schedule a vote or if the bill’s opponents obstruct or amend the legislation, Senate Democrats likely will highlight the two parties’ differences on the issue.

Although Specter, Hatch and the Democrats share a common goal of passing the legislation, the Republicans have not always worked in close concert with the Democrats. Democrats were not included in Frist’s negotiations with Specter and Hatch last year on how to raise the stem-cells bill alongside other legislation, including a ban on human cloning sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas).

In addition to Brownback’s cloning-ban bill, which would prohibit some kinds of embryonic-stem-cell research, several Senate Republicans have floated alternatives to Specter’s bill that have complicated Frist’s efforts to make time and obtain unanimous consent to limit debate.

For example, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) introduced a bill that would allow federal funding for stem-cell research using theoretical new scientific approaches that would not require destroying human embryos.

Opponents of the embryonic-research bill did not back up the supporters’ contention that a deal to allow votes on these bills is imminent.

A Coburn spokesman indicated that he does not believe a vote on any of the bills will come by the end of May, despite the optimism of the Specter bill’s supporters.

Likewise, Brownback’s spokeswoman said: “We currently have no indications from leadership as to when we might get a vote, but Senator Brownback is hopeful the cloning ban will get a clean up-or-down vote in the near future.”

One conservative organization that opposes the bill and has been keeping a watchful eye agreed.

“It’s not something that we’ve heard much about lately,” Eagle Forum Executive Director Jessica Echard said. She explained that the group wants to see separate votes on a series of bills, including the stem-cell measure, the cloning ban and legislation to forbid scientists to mix human and animal genes to create hybrids known as “chimera.”

One of the measures originally under consideration for inclusion in that set of bills has already been enacted. In December, President Bush signed a bill to create a national registry of stem cells created from umbilical-cord blood.

The cord-blood bill enjoyed practically unanimous support in both the House and Senate and provided Republicans who opposed embryonic research with some political insulation against Democratic charges that they were against emerging science.

Although Bush endorsed the bill at a public ceremony in December, his recent annual budget request proposes eliminating all federal funding for the cord-blood program in three years.

The authorizing legislation calls for $15 million a year for four years to fund the program. The White House instead asks for $4 million this year and no money next year. According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ budget overview, other, leftover departmental funding will be adequate to administer the program.

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