GOP stem-cell talks cool down

Senate negotiations over how to proceed with legislation to expand stem-cell research have cooled down this week to give key Republicans a chance to regroup before the August recess.

The central figures in the talks have decided to step back from their efforts to achieve consensus on how to balance the demands of those fighting to allow the National Institutes of Health and other science agencies to fund more research into embryonic stem cells against those morally opposed because the embryos are destroyed for the research.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is still working to get an agreement before recess, according to a spokesperson who nevertheless conceded that a “regrouping process” is under way.

A GOP aide close to the negotiations said the proliferation of competing and complementary legislation had complicated matters. Senators will continue to discuss a deal over the recess in the hope of returning after Labor Day and settling on a unified GOP conference position, the aide said.

Frist has worked for more than a month to bring bipartisan bill to the floor, even though he and the White House staunchly oppose it. Frist previously promised Republican supporters of embryonic-stem-cell research that he would schedule a vote before the recess, but that window appears now to have closed.

GOP Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.), Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Gordon Smith (Ore.) are leading the fight to bring the House-passed bill to the Senate floor. Supporters of the research say stem cells can be used to develop treatments and cures for many medical conditions.

The failure of Senate Republicans to agree has protected President Bush from having to use his veto power for the first time. Public opinion supports the House bill, which passed by too slim a majority to make it veto-proof.

The bill’s supporters seemed poised to see their bill reach the floor and pass with a filibuster-proof supermajority weeks ago. But alternative proposals from other senators seem to have stalled progress. Several bills have been shopped around that could strip votes from the House-passed legislation, including one that would provide more limited access to embryonic stem cells for research.

The most prominent of the alternative bills is one Frist commissioned from Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and other Republicans on Enzi’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The measure would promote research into untested ways of extracting stem cells from an embryo without destroying it.

The proliferation of these bills, along with legislation to ban human cloning and to fund other types of research not involving embryos, recently caused Specter, chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS) Subcommittee, to threaten to attach the stem-cells language as a rider to the labor-HHS spending bill when it comes to the floor later this year.

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