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Senate Takes Up Stem-Cell Bill; Bush Vows to Veto

The Democratic-led Senate on Tuesday took up legislation that would expand federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, defying a White House veto threat.

Last year, that hot-button issue prompted President Bush to exercise his veto power for the first and only time in his administration. Congressional Democrats are hoping that this year, their expanded numbers and public pressure will give them a better shot at overriding a presidential veto.

The bipartisan bill would expand the number of embryonic stem-cell lines eligible for federal research funding, lifting restrictions that President Bush put in place in 2001. The bill is very much like one passed by the House in January, and nearly identical to the one which the president vetoed last year.

But some things have changed since that veto. For one thing, there are more Democrats who back such legislation in both chambers. And last month, the bill received a politically potent endorsement from the man whom Mr. Bush appointed as director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Elias Zerhouni.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), who's a chief sponsor of the legislation, recounted some surprising testimony that Zerhouni gave to the appropriations subcommittee, which Harkin chairs.

"I asked him whether scientists would have a better chance of finding new cures and treatments if the administration's current restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research were lifted," Harkin said. "Dr. Zerhouni said, unequivocally, yes."

Just as they did last year, a number of leading Senate Republicans have lined up as co-sponsors of the stem-cell bill. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) says he thinks President Bush is misguided:

"I think he's on the wrong side of history and has bad advice on this," Hatch said. "He's got so many earth-shaking problems that I don't think he's had time to really focus on this. And the people who've advised him, I think, have advised him in ways that will be on the wrong side of history."

Polls show wide public support for expanding embryonic stem-cell research. Lawmakers who vote against this bill are likely to vote for another bill on the Senate floor: It calls for expanded research on stem cells, as long as they're not derived from living embryos.

One of its sponsors is Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN), who insists he's not trying to draw votes away from those who back the other stem-cell bill.

"I have the greatest respect, the greatest appreciation for what they're trying to accomplish, the most noble goals," Coleman said. "And this is not a bill against anything. It is simply saying there is a political reality, that when the Harkin bill passes and is vetoed, that as of January 1 of 2008, there will be no additional stem-cell research that is federally funded, and we're looking for a way to move that forward."

Both bills are likely to get more than 60 votes in the Senate. But it's not clear that the bill expanding embryonic stem-cell research can get the 67 votes needed to override a presidential veto. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) on Tuesday called for a massive march to drum up more support.

"If we put a million people on the mall, they would be within hearing distance of the living quarters of the White House," Specter said. "And with 110 million people who are affected directly, personally, or indirectly through their families, there is the potential for sufficient political pressure to provide enough votes to override a veto – if, in fact, the president were to veto the bill."

He added, "It is my hope that the president will relent."

But the White House warned Tuesday that if the bill passes, the president will veto it.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.