Stem-cell supporters plan TV ads

The centrist Republican Main Street Partnership plans to run television ads promoting federal legislation on stem-cell research in states represented by senators who have not taken a position on the controversial issue.

The advertising effort will roll out this spring to push for Senate action on research into embryonic stem cells.

The Main Street group, which includes eight senators, conducted a similar campaign in the run-up to the House vote on the bill last May, when it passed 238-194 with the support of 50 Republicans.

Some Republican lawmakers were angered last year when the Main Street Partnership conducted opinion polls in their districts to illustrate the public’s support for the research, which most scientists contend could lead to treatments and cures for afflictions such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and paralysis.

The Main Street Partnership does not have firm plans to conduct additional polling but has not ruled it out. The group has not conducted surveys since its initial effort attracted criticism in 2005.

The television campaign could include the same ads as last year’s, which featured a 2-year-old boy suffering from an incurable disease. The Main Street Partnership also is in discussions with a “Republican celebrity” to shoot another TV spot, said Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, the executive director of the Main Street group.

The Main Street Republicans have not made a determination about where the ads will run but will need to balance their desire for passage of the stem-cell bill with taking care not to threaten the campaigns of vulnerable Republicans.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has only five Republican co-sponsors to go with 35 Democrats. Supporters claim commitments from about 60 senators, which means that about 20 have committed to vote for it but not signed on to the legislation.

The bill’s backers claim the support of Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who is locked in a tough reelection campaign and could use a vote for stem-cell research to disarm one criticism of his expected general-election opponent, Rep. Sherrod Brown (D).

[After press time, additional information made clear that DeWine opposes embryonic-stem-cell research and that those working to pass the Senate bill do not claim his support.]

Among other GOP senators up for reelection this year, George Allen (Va.), Richard Lugar (Ind.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) are viewed as votes that could be won. Allen, however, has said he would vote against the bill. Virginia’s senior senator, Republican John Warner, also is thought of as a possible “yes” vote, and the state is home to a growing biotechnology sector.

Proponents of research into embryonic stem cells expect an April or May vote on the measure, which passed the House last year. Aides to leading Senate supporters of the bill plan to begin strategizing for the vote in early March, according to a spokesman for Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Republican supporters of the legislation view a spring vote as vital to the electoral prospects of GOP candidates. However, bringing the bill to the floor will run counter to the wishes of the White House less than six months from the election.

Polls routinely show strong, bipartisan support for embryonic-stem-cell research among the electorate. Democrats, who are almost uniformly in favor of expanding the research, view the issue as a political winner.

“We really want to get it done. [It would be] one less thing the Democrats can use against us,” said Chamberlain Resnick.

“Our hope is that we can remove this [as] a political issue,” Chamberlain Resnick said.

The potency of embryonic stem cells as a political issue has been illustrated in recent weeks by the furor that erupted when Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) shifted his position on embryonic research and cloning.

Talent has been accused of flip-flopping after withdrawing his co-sponsorship of cloning-ban legislation sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). Talent has not endorsed the embryonic-stem-cell bill but raised concerns that Brownback’s measure would prohibit theoretical research methods that would not require the destruction of human embryos.

Legislation that would expand federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research has sharply divided Republicans. President Bush adopted a policy in 2001 that permits federal money to be spent only on researching embryonic stem cells that were available at the time.

Lawmakers who oppose the science tend to be opponents of abortion rights and argue that research that destroys human embryos is unethical. Proponents point to the fact that the embryos available for use are the surplus byproduct of fertility-clinic services and will be discarded anyway.

Specter, who supports abortion rights, counts some GOP senators who oppose abortion rights, such as Hatch and Gordon Smith (Ore.), among his staunchest allies.

Congressional aides have described the push on stem cells as having significantly quieted since last summer, but backers maintain that they have picked up three or four more votes since negotiations died down before the August recess.

Specter and Hatch claimed for more than a year to have commitments from 58 senators. That total has increased to 61 or 62, according to Chamberlain Resnick.

“I think we’re knocking on the door of a veto-proof margin in the Senate,” said Sean Tipton, who is president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, an umbrella group of stem-cell-research supporters.

However, there is not enough support in the House to overcome a presidential veto.

The most significant endorsement came from Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who took to the Senate floor in July and promised to vote for the bill.

After Frist broke with Bush, senators and outside groups on both sides geared up for action when the Senate returned in the fall.

Frist already had promised Specter a vote after the senator threatened to attach the bill to the labor, health and human services and education appropriations bill that was being drafted by the subcommittee he chairs.

Congress, however, has been preoccupied with other pressing issues, such as the response to the Gulf Coast hurricanes, filling vacancies on the Supreme Court and dealing with the aftermath of several ethical scandals.

A spokesman for one of the bill’s most ardent opponents, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), predicted, however, that interest in technologies such as those now endorsed by Talent may complicate efforts by supporters of embryonic-cell research to hold on to votes they had counted on.

Before the August break, Frist tried and failed to achieve consensus among Republicans about how to raise the Specter bill, the Brownback cloning ban and other related measures, including some seemingly designed to strip votes from the House-passed legislation.

GOP Sens. Hutchison, Johnny Isakson (Ga.) and Norm Coleman (Minn.) were reportedly among those floating alternative proposals. Brownback and Coburn threatened to obstruct the Specter bill.

Another related bill was removed from the equation last year when the Senate passed a bill in December to encourage research on stem cells derived from umbilical-cord blood. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) brought that measure to a vote on the same day as the embryonic-research bill; both passed. The president has signed the measure into law.

Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) has acted as a liaison between Frist and Republicans on his committee, including Isakson, on the bills. Frist and Hatch also sit on the committee, which was not given an opportunity to mark up the House-passed bill.

Enzi now sees the Specter bill as the most likely vehicle this year, a committee spokesman said. “The chairman does expect to see a stem-cell bill move this session,” the spokesman said. “The time is drawing near.”