Bush stem cell policy may return

Congress is running out of time to pass legislation allowing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, potentially setting up the resumption of a Bush-era policy that President Obama reversed with fanfare shortly after taking office.


Without legislative action by year’s end, federal funding for the controversial research could once again be highly restricted, as it was under former President George W. Bush.

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An appeals court could rule either way within the next few months, but legislation pending in the House and Senate could effectively make the decision moot by clarifying a 1996 law that bans the use of taxpayer money for research where human embryos are destroyed.

“Obviously, with every day that goes by, it becomes less likely” that the bill will pass, said Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), a co-sponsor of the legislation. “I’d like to see it happen, but I’m not exactly holding my breath.”

Obama’s order allows federal funding for biomedical research that uses embryonic stem cells to search for potential prevention or treatment of diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Opponents say the practice is immoral and should not be funded by taxpayers because it requires the stem cells to be destroyed.

The mood among proponents of the legislation is a complete reversal from March 2009, when Obama signed an executive order reversing an eight-year moratorium. “We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research, and we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield,” the president said at the time.

A federal judge struck down Obama’s order in August, saying it violated the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a rider that makes it illegal to use federal monies to support research in which human embryos are created, destroyed or discarded. But an appeals court allowed the current policy to remain in place temporarily until it rules on the issue.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who introduced the House bill, told The Hill she’s confident the bill could pass in both chambers. But she said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has been reluctant to take time from the House’s busy schedule to pass the bill unless the Senate commits to taking it up.

“I’ve talked to my leadership about it and they say it’s still not off the table,” DeGette said. “The concern is ... an issue of time. Why would we have a vote on something like this if it’s not going to come up in the other body?”

The legislation has bipartisan support, and twice passed Congress before being vetoed by Bush. It first passed in 2005 by a 238-194 margin in the House, with 50 Republicans voting in favor. It passed again in 2007 by a vote of 247-176, with 37 Republicans voting yes. Eighteen Republican senators voted for it the first time, and 16 the second. Most are still in the Senate.

DeGette said she was also encouraged by the fact that Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a member of the Congressional Stem Cell Whip Team when he was in the House, has been sworn in as a senator and can make a strong case directly to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

But asked about the likelihood of the Senate taking up the issue, a Reid spokesman pointed to a recent letter signed by every Senate Republican vowing to hold up all controversial legislation until the expiring Bush tax cuts are dealt with.

Even if the bill doesn’t pass this session, DeGette says the legislation could have a chance next year. She pointed to a recent Harris Interactive poll that found 72 percent of Americans are in favor of using embryonic stem cells left over from in vitro fertilization procedures for medical research.

“I don’t think it’s the last chance,” DeGette said. “We’re now beginning to see some real results from the research that’s happened. There’s been two human-subject studies that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration just in the past two months, so you’re going to see more scientific advances. And so, if the new Republican majority in the House starts trying to put limitations on research or ban research, or if the court decision comes out the wrong way, then you’re going to see a renewed emphasis on codifying this.”

But Castle wasn’t as sanguine about the bill’s reception in a Congress controlled by his Republican colleagues.

“It’s evident that absolutely nothing will pass in the next Congress,” Castle told The Hill, “so if we’re going to do it, we have to do it during this lame duck.”

Paradoxically, the appeals court’s stay may have dampened the urgency for getting legislation passed, Castle suggested.

“I think that’s an important factor in all of this,” he said, “because then the whole thing could have stopped if we didn’t get something done [in Congress]. Now, with the injunction, things can go on limping along.”