Stem cell bill gets Republican champion

Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Charlie Dent is taking the place of defeated Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) as the lead co-sponsor of embryonic stem cell legislation, offering key Republican support for a controversial bill reviled by many social conservatives.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), would give legislative backing to President Obama’s 2009 executive order allowing federal funding for medical research using discarded embryos from fertility clinics.

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A federal appeals court upheld the order earlier this year, but the bill’s proponents say a pending legal challenge — and the possibility of a future president overturning the order — are having a chilling effect on new research. The Department of Justice last week asked a U.S. district judge to end the lawsuit.

The bill’s critics object on religious and moral grounds, arguing that the research destroys viable embryos to harvest the stem cells.

“This area of research is important to finding critical breakthroughs in a number of areas,” Dent told The Hill. The bill “does establish ethical criteria for stem cell research, and I think that’s very, very important.”

To be eligible for federal funding, Dent pointed out, research would have to use leftover embryos that would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded. In addition, donors would have to sign written consent forms and would be barred from receiving financial compensation. The bill also prohibits federal funding for human cloning, in accordance with National Institutes of Health guidelines.

DeGette acknowledged the need for a Republican co-sponsor.

Bipartisan support was critical to getting stem cell legislation passed in 2005 and 2007, she said, “and it certainly is critical for us now.”

The bill garnered significant GOP support both times — 50 House and 18 Senate Republicans voted for it the first time, 37 and 16 the second — but then-President George W. Bush vetoed it twice.

Dent was among a handful of Republican co-sponsors in the last Congress, along with Reps. Fred Upton (Mich.), Mary Bono Mack (Calif.) and Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.). McCotter withdrew his sponsorship after five days.

Dent has voted for the legislation in the past, and comes from a district that leans Democratic.

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Pennsylvania’s 15th district made a Cook Political Report list of competitive House races for 2012, even if it’s rated “likely Republican” so far. The district voted for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) in the 2004 presidential election and for then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in 2008.

Castle, the lead co-sponsor in the last Congress, ran for Ted Kaufman’s (D) Senate seat in Delaware last year but lost the primary to Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell, who got trounced in the general election by Democrat Chris Coons. Soon after his defeat, Castle told The Hill that the closing days of the 111th Congress were the last chance to get the bill passed before a wave of conservative freshmen swept into office.

“It’s evident that absolutely nothing will pass in the next Congress,” Castle said at the time.

DeGette said she’s spoken to a number of freshmen and is hopeful the legislation will once again receive broad bipartisan support. She is scheduled to unveil the bill at the Craig rehabilitation hospital in Denver on Wednesday.

“One of the reasons to introduce legislation is so people can actually look at something and see what they’re talking about,” she told The Hill. “We’re cautiously optimistic that we have good support among the freshmen on both sides of the aisle.”