Stem cells could be strike 3

Pardon the pun, but the White House is again trying to blur the lines in the stem-cell debate. This time, it is not likely to work. Back in August 2001, President Bush announced a “compromise” on stem-cell research. He restricted federal funding to existing lines, of which he claimed there were more than 60. Then we all learned that fewer than two dozen existing lines actually were available and that many of them were not suitable for the research needed to cure Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Hodgkin’s, cancers, spinal-cord injuries or dozens of other conditions.

Pardon the pun, but the White House is again trying to blur the lines in the stem-cell debate. This time, it is not likely to work.

Back in August 2001, President Bush announced a “compromise” on stem-cell research. He restricted federal funding to existing lines, of which he claimed there were more than 60. Then we all learned that fewer than two dozen existing lines actually were available and that many of them were not suitable for the research needed to cure Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Hodgkin’s, cancers, spinal-cord injuries or dozens of other conditions.

Fast-forward through years of debate and public education to May 2005. Over strong objection from the White House and the Republican leadership, the House approved a measure that allowed federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells. Supporters in the Senate believe they have 60 votes for legislation very much like that passed in the House.

Now that it is obvious they can’t duck that vote, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and others are pushing for yet another “compromise” that would avoid Bush’s promised veto of anything like the House legislation.

The convoluted maneuvering and careful wordsmithing aim for a bill that would fund research into deriving pluripotent cell lines without the “destruction” of an unused embryo from a fertilization clinic. An embryo, by the way, that is destined to be discarded if not used in research.

The hope is to peel enough votes away from legislation sponsored by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to pass something the president will sign. When a similar tactic was tried in the House, however, both pieces of legislation passed. A similar result in the Senate would still have the president reaching for his pen to exercise his first veto.

The reason behind this jumble of scientific theory and language is simple: votes. The publicity generated by proponents of stem-cell research has reached critical mass with voters. Public endorsements by Nancy Reagan and actors Michael J. Fox, Mary Tyler Moore and the late Christopher Reeve helped break through the clutter and make this complicated science real.

Polls show nearly 60 percent of Americans support the research while less than 30 percent oppose it. Even a plurality of self-described “religious conservatives” supports the research. California passed a $3 billion bond measure last year to fund research.

Voters have gotten the message. Someone in everyone’s family could have their life saved or improved by stem-cell research. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve long been a supporter, have worked closely with a group called CuresNow and was involved with the California bond measure.)

Frist is in a bind on this one. He endorsed research into embryonic stem cells until his president opposed it. He must defend the White House agenda in the Senate. He’s looking to run for president and will need the votes in the primaries of those on the religious right who oppose the legislation and, should he win the nomination, the support in the general election of those who favor the research. The easy way out for him is a compromise bill that Bush will sign.

Even if he could win that fight in the Senate, it is not clear that will be enough for the voters. None of the substitute legislation supports research that is proven. “This is something that could be very valuable if it works,” says Stanford University researcher Irving Weissman, a leader in the field and a frequent spokesman for stem-cell supporters. “But don’t tell me we should stop doing [embryo] research until we find out, because people’s lives are at stake.”

Irv gets the message. “People’s lives are at stake.”

Republican politics on stem cells just adds to the perception of intrusive politics created by the Terri Schiavo case. It would be just one more exhibit for Democrats to use in building a case that a conservative, highly ideological minority has hijacked the Republican Party.

Depending on where the president goes with his Supreme Court nomination(s), stem cells could be domestic strike three for a lot of Republicans seeing reelection. If the president exercises his veto on the Specter-Harkin bill or Frist gets his “compromise” through the Senate, this issue will become front and center in the 2006 elections.

We’re liable to see a very high-profile campaign against those who want to impose their moral agenda on American families. That kind of intrusion in voter’s personal lives could get some Republicans excluded from any future public life.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com