Stem-cell debate to spill over into '06

Many members of Congress say staking out a position on embryonic-stem-cell research is a personal issue, often shaped by family tragedy that defies the standard, abortion-rights divide. But to conservative activists angered by Republicans who backed Tuesday night’s measure to increase federal funding of stem-cell research, voting yes for the bill was little more than betrayal. Democrats, too, suggested the vote could influence tight races in 2006.

Many members of Congress say staking out a position on embryonic-stem-cell research is a personal issue, often shaped by family tragedy that defies the standard, abortion-rights divide.

But to conservative activists angered by Republicans who backed Tuesday night’s measure to increase federal funding of stem-cell research, voting yes for the bill was little more than betrayal. Democrats, too, suggested the vote could influence tight races in 2006.

“I think it will affect a number of congressmen who previously were thought of as pro-life, and now you’re going to find groups like ours that send out scorecards … and they’re no longer 100 percent,” Tom McClusky, director of government affairs at the Family Research Council, said yesterday.

McClusky singled out Reps. Jo Ann Emerson (Mo.), Joe Barton (Texas) and Buck McKeon (Calif.) — all reliably Republican foes of abortion rights who voted for increased stem-cell funding — as the Family Research Council’s chief potential targets.
In another sign of just how seriously conservatives take the stem-cell debate, President Bush has made it clear that he would use his veto to override the measure, which was sponsored by Reps. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).

Other Republicans who may have caught their conservative base off-guard included Reps. Judy Biggert (Ill.), Don Young (Alaska), Duke Cunningham (Calif.), Howard Coble (N.C.) and John Sweeney (N.Y.).

Certain GOP members had obvious reasons for backing the measure — for example, Reps. Clay Shaw, Bill Young, Mark Foley and Connie Mack, all Florida Republicans whose districts include many senior citizens who presumably care a great deal about medical science.

Other members cited personal experience. Speaking on the House floor yesterday before casting his yea vote for the stem-cell measure, Barton said: “I cannot know the truth with absolute certainty, but my heart says that my brother and my father might be with us today if their doctors had access to treatments developed through stem-cell research. If a vote today can save other families from losing brothers and fathers, my conscience will not permit any other decision.”

Barton spokesman Brooks Landgraf added that the congressman was moved to support the bill because Barton and his wife are expecting a baby in September. Emerson spokesman Jeffrey Connor said the congresswoman had conferred with ethicists, priests and her own minister before casting her vote in favor of the bill.

But to McClusky and other conservative leaders, Republicans who “voted their conscience” are simply using the same defense employed by those who back abortion rights.

“What they’re still doing is allowing experimentation on human embryos,” McClusky said, adding that the Family Research Council backs research on adult stem cells but not embryonic ones.

McClusky noted that his group has run print ads dealing with stem-cell research and would be running issue ads on television in the coming election cycle, although he declined to say whether those ads would address Tuesday’s vote.

The National Right to Life Committee’s legislative director, Douglas Johnson, issued a statement Tuesday saying the bill creates a slippery slope that would ultimately lead to the biotechnology industry’s cloning of humans.

“In fact,” Douglas said, “they are already seeking to create human embryos by cloning for the specific purpose of harvesting their parts for research.”

Representatives for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee said the stem-cell vote is unlikely to factor into next year’s races. NRCC spokesman Carl Forti said local issues play a more important role in House races than congressional votes.

But a Democratic leadership aide said at least two Republicans — Reps. Dave Reichert of Washington and Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania — could face some trouble for opposing the measure.

“I think at the end of the day it is going to end up being one of the more politically important votes that are taken this Congress,” the aide said.

Another district where the stem-cell vote could tip the scales in a possible 2006 GOP primary is Michigan’s 7th, where centrist Rep. Joe Schwartz won his first term last year after battling several more conservative Republican rivals.

Chris Ganschow, a spokesman for Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), one of the 14 Democrats who opposed the bill, argued that the stem-cell debate could not be understood in simple, black-and-white, pro-abortion-rights-versus-anti-abortion-rights terms.

Other Democrats who voted against the Castle-DeGette bill included Collin Peterson (Minn.), Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), Jim Marshall (Ga.) and Alan Mollohan (W.Va.).