Stem-cell bill exposes stark divide among GOP conference

Republican centrists won the first battle in a three-stage debate over embryonic-stem-cell research yesterday, but overall prospects for the bill remain uncertain.

The House was expected to pass controversial legislation last night that would expand federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research after three hours of impassioned debate that exposed a deep divide within the Republican Conference.

The bill, introduced by Reps. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), seeks to roll back a ban on federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell lines derived after President Bush announced his funding policy in August 2001. Bush has threatened to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

The vote has stirred public emotions on both sides of the aisle, but those emotions were more starkly divided on the Republican side yesterday.

“The Castle bill is both divisive and, to put it bluntly, dismissive of the dignity of human life at its embryonic stage,” Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said as he opened debate on a bill written by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) that would expand the country’s reserve of umbilical-cord blood, which was offered as an alternative to the Castle bill. “It has, therefore, incited loud, and in too many cases harsh, advocacy on both sides of the debate.”

Supporters of the Castle legislation framed the debate in human terms, casting the vote in terms of the potential treatments that could be derived from stem-cell research.

“Does this Congress really want to look back 10 years from now and say that we were the ones holding the treatments up?” Castle said. “Or do we want to be the Congress that says, ‘We back science. We want research to flourish, and we played a small role in making that happen’?”

Opponents used the afternoon debate to stage a three-pronged attack on the legislation, questioning the ethics and the effectiveness of the science as well as the fiduciary responsibility of funding controversial science with federal tax money.

“This debate is defined in so many ways by the conscience of each member,” said Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), adding that his whip office was not working the bill.

From here, the bill will go to the Senate, where its fate remains uncertain. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who has co-sponsored a companion bill, assured reporters two weeks ago that he would get a vote on the Senate floor, but he would not say whether that vote would be for standalone legislation or for legislation attached to a must-pass bill.

The president has vowed to veto the legislation. As the House debated the issue, he held a press conference yesterday to condemn the bill.

“Today the House of Representatives is considering a bill that violates the clear standard I set four years ago,” Bush said. “This bill would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life. Crossing this line would be a great mistake.”

In anticipation of a presidential veto, one of the bill’s strongest supporters wondered if the administration would negotiate with Senate leadership.

“It will be interesting to see if the White House engages with the Senate to look at a bill they would support,” said Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). “My hope is that the White House opens a discussion with Senate leadership on this.”

The issue has divided the GOP conference since The Washington Post first reported that Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had allowed a vote on the Castle bill.

During the debate, many supporters of the bill referred to dead or paralyzed relatives who, they say, could have been cured by potential treatments. Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.), who uses a wheelchair, implored his colleagues to pass legislation that could allow him to walk.

The vote is difficult for centrist Republicans who face a conservative primary opponent.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) told members that despite a career supporting pro-life legislation he would back the Castle bill because of its potential to help save lives.

Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), whose office has organized press events and briefings in opposition to the bill, displayed two binders, one with documentation of the 67 known treatments discovered from adult-stem-cell research and another, which was empty, to symbolize the proven treatments derived from embryonic-stem-cell research.

Hastert has told the conference that this will be the last time it deals with this issue. Notably, he will vote to oppose the Castle legislation and in favor of the Smith bill — the Speaker does not generally vote unless the margin is tight.

Overall, members on both sides of the debate agreed that the Republican Conference would move on from this issue.

“I think this was good for our conference,” said Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.), a vocal supporter of the Castle bill. “I wish we did this every week. Why can’t we have real debates on real issues?”