GOP hopefuls getting more time to weigh stem-cell vote

Republican senators, including several presidential hopefuls, will have more time to weigh their options on embryonic-stem-cell research now that Senate leaders have put off a vote on a House bill until next year.

In May, the House sent the Senate a measure that would authorize government spending for research on embryonic-stem-cell lines that did not exist in 2001. But President Bush, whose policy has limited federal money to research of lines then in existence, has threatened to veto the bill if the Senate clears it.

The issue is a tough one for Republican lawmakers, particularly those courting a national audience in 2008 and those up for reelection next year, because it pits primary-conscious conservative activists against centrists.

“The dilemma is they’ve got the elections coming up and there are now some pretty clear divisions in the Republican Party,” said Scott Ainsworth, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

Many conservatives believe destroying an embryo is tantamount to homicide. But public-opinion polls consistently show majority support for the research, which proponents hope will yield cures for a wide variety of diseases.

Federal funding is crucial to spurring advances in the field, they say. And, they argue, the embryos they hope to make available would be discarded anyway.

In a floor speech last Friday, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he would not try to reverse the White House policy with an amendment as the Senate considers his labor, health and human services appropriations bill this week.

“It would cause a multifaceted controversy with about five different positions to be inserted,” said Specter, the sponsor of the Senate companion to the House-passed measure. Indeed, opponents of relaxing the limits on federal funding for research into embryonic stem cells have offered a variety of legislative options that would not result in the destruction of embryos, including enhancing the study of adult stem cells and cells captured from umbilical cord blood.

Frist’s top aide said a vote would likely occur early in 2006.

“The leader will move to bring the bill to the Senate for action next year, likely before the Easter recess,” Eric Ueland, Frist’s chief of staff, said in an e-mail. “The Senate is in no position to have the type of thoughtful and focused debate this issue deserves in the time it has before adjourning prior to Thanksgiving.”

The dilemma for Republicans was underscored by Frist’s public reversal on the issue. Frist, a possible presidential candidate who had previously backed Bush’s policy, announced his support for an expansion just before the August recess.

Support for expanded federal backing of research into embryonic stem cells could make it more difficult for a Republican hopeful to win the nomination. Conversely, opposition could hurt the nominee in the general election campaign.

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), a likely contender for the 2008 Republican nomination, remains opposed to federal funding for research that results in the destruction of embryos. Instead, Allen said in a brief interview, he favors funding for research on non-embryonic stem cells and the development of technology that would allow scientists to reap benefits from embryonic stem cells “without destroying an embryo.”

Allen’s position could help him with presidential primary voters in 2008 without becoming the dominant issue in the general election, according to James Madison University political scientist Bob Roberts.

“It’s a win for him within the party,” Roberts said. But in the general election, the issue will fade in comparison to abortion, Roberts said.

Like Frist, John McCain, the Republican senator with the highest national profile, has reversed his position on the issue and now supports an expansion of the research.

“It’s a very complex scientific issue,” McCain (Ariz.) told NBC’s Tim Russert earlier this year. “But for us to throw away opportunities to cure diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and many others I think would be a mistake.”

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), another possible presidential contender, is a longtime critic of the House approach.

“The vote in the House to allow taxpayer-funded destruction of young human lives is deeply troubling,” Brownback said. “We all have a duty to protect the innocent, and this vote represents a failure to recognize the scientific fact that stem-cell research that destroys embryos kills young human children.”

Of the 238 House members who voted for the bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), only 50 were Republicans. Support within the GOP was still strong enough to force House leaders to hold a vote on the bill. Supporters are hoping to cobble together an overwhelming majority in the Senate, but it is unlikely that a veto could be overridden.

Proponents of the House measure say they see advantages to delaying a Senate vote until next year, including avoiding possible horse trading during the end-of-year legislative rush and the possibility that foreign stem-cell research will spur American lawmakers to take the lead.

“If putting it off means having a better arrangement for a vote, that’s fine with us,” said Elizabeth Wenk, a senior aide to Castle.

Still, some in that camp are wary of holding the vote too close to the 2006 midterm Senate election because incumbent Republicans could feel added pressure from primary opponents.

“There’s a short window, and we want to do it as soon as possible,” said Ron Talley, spokesman for the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership.