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Senate Backs Embryonic Stem Cell Research


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Senate has defied yet another veto threat from President Bush. Yesterday, it passed a bipartisan bill which would loosen restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Mr. Bush issued the only veto of his presidency against similar stem cell legislation last year.

Whether the Congress has enough votes to override another presidential veto remains in doubt, as David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Just as they did last year, some leading Senate Republicans again joined Democrats in defying President Bush on his stem cell policy. Utah Republican Orrin Hatch reminded colleagues that, in August 2001, Mr. Bush announced federal research funding would be available only for stem cell batches that existed at that time.

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): The president's policy has not lived up to its promise. In the past six years, much has changed. What was once thought to be over 70 stem cell lines has dwindled. A number of scientists have told me that, in reality, the number of usable cell lines has shriveled to nearly a dozen or fewer.

WELNA: Hatch noted that hundreds of stem cell lines remain out of bounds for federal researchers, limiting their chances of finding therapies for incurable diseases. Opponents say such research means destroying human embryos. But thousands of embryos produced by in vitro fertilization are discarded each year anyway.

This is pointed out by Missouri freshman Democrat Claire McCaskill, who, last fall, defeated a Republican incumbent in a close race in which stem cell research was a major issue.

Senator CLAIRE MCCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): This is the question of the day: Is it better to use these eggs to save lives as opposed to throwing them away? It really boils down to that.

WELNA: That failed to sway Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, who strongly opposes extracting stem cell from embryos.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): These embryos are going to be destroyed, so why not? Somebody on death row is going to be destroyed, so why not? Because they have dignity.

WELNA: But polls show most Americans want more embryonic stem cell research. So Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman, who faces a potentially difficult reelection bid next year, offered an alternative stem cell research bill backed by the White House. Unlike the veto-threatened bill sponsored by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, Coleman's measure encourages research using all stem cells except those derived from viable human embryos.

Senator NORM COLEMAN (Republican, Minnesota): The Harkin Bill's going to be vetoed. So if you want some of the stuff that's in the Harkin Bill that doesn't cross the moral line, that is not divisive, then you've got to support what we're doing.

WELNA: Majority Leader Harry Reid dismissed Coleman's bill, known as S.30, as nothing more than political cover.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Majority Leader): I'm not going to vote for it. I think S.30 is a cover vote. I'm not going to provide any cover.

WELNA: Coleman's bill did pass 70 to 28, with only Democrats opposing it. More significantly, the Harkin bill, expanding access to embryonic stem cell lines, also passed 63 to 34. Three Democrats who would have voted for it were not there, but even if they had been, it's still would have fallen short of a veto-proof two-thirds majority. Still, bill sponsor Harkin called the outcome a good win.

Sen. HARKIN: I remain a hopeful man. I hope the president signs it. If he doesn't, I hope we have the one more vote that we need to override the veto. You never know.

WELNA: But President Bush issued a statement after the vote saying Harkin's bill crossed a moral line he finds troubling and vowed if it reaches his desk, he'll veto it. Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter insisted Congress can still prevail.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): And it is my hope that the American people will be mobilized; identify the people who voted against embryonic stem cell research and insist that the Congress get it done, even if it requires an override of a presidential veto.

WELNA: And the most likely targets in such a campaign would be lawmakers who face tough races next year.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.