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Embryonic stem cell research bill is assured of Senate passage, but doomed by veto threat

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WASHINGTON — Senate supporters of embryonic stem cell research refused to take another no for an answer Tuesday, advancing politically popular legislation that is assured of passage, yet doomed for the second straight year to a veto that Congress cannot override.
    ‘‘This bill eventually will become law,’’ vowed Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., as debate opened on a bill to loosen federal funding restrictions on research that supporters say offers hope for treatment of numerous diseases.
    ‘‘If not this year then next year. If not next year then the following year.’’
    Assuredly not this year.
    President Bush, who cast the only veto of his tenure on a stem cell bill in 2006, quickly made it clear this year will be no different. The bill ‘‘would use federal taxpayer dollars to support and encourage the destruction of human life for research,’’ the White House said in a written statement.
    Stem cells are created in the first days after conception, and are typically culled from frozen embryos, which are destroyed in the process.
    The legislation would overturn a policy Bush established in 2001, when he said federal funds may only be used for research on a limited number of stem cell lines that were in existence before the day of his announcement. The administration’s goal was to satisfy calls for funding of scientific research without offending anti-abortion conservatives who had helped elect him to the White House.
    The bill’s supporters concede they are short of the votes needed to override a veto, but appeared eager to confront the president again on an issue with strong public backing.
    ‘‘If we did everything based on veto threats by the president, we would never get anything done around here,’’ said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
    The result was a heavily political debate.
    Last year’s veto was ‘‘another despicable example of science taking a back seat to politics in this administration,’’ said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. ‘‘Policies that should rest on science are decided instead by crass political calculations of what is needed to appease the most intransigent elements of the Republican base.’’
    Republican opponents backed an alternative they said offered hope for scientific progress without destroying human embryos, a sticking point for conservatives.
    ‘‘It’s a way around the culture wars,’’ added Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, referring to the political battles that have raged in recent years on all issues touching on abortion. ‘‘It’s not all we want but it moves the science forward.’’
    Senate supporters of the veto-threatened bill said they would vote for the alternative, although they deemed it insufficient. Its prospects for House passage were uncertain.
    Supporters of embryonic stem cell research say it alone promises treatment if not cures for a wide range of diseases, from juvenile diabetes to Alzheimer’s disease.
    Public opinion polls show support for the research is strong, 61 percent in an ABC/Washington Post Poll earlier this year. In an AP-Ipsos poll last December, 56 percent of those polled said restrictions should be loosened, and Dr. Elias Zerhouni, whom Bush appointed as head of the National Institutes of Health, has called for the policy to be changed.
    The issue also played a role in the 2006 midterm elections in which Democrats won control of both houses of Congress. Most memorably, actor Michael J. Fox appeared in television ads in at least three races, supporting research. Fox, 45, swayed uncontrollably in the commercial, exhibiting symptoms of his Parkinson’s Disease.
    Victorious Democrats swiftly put the stem cell bill on their list of top priorities for 2007. The House approved its bill in January, although by a smaller margin than needed to override the threatened veto.
    In the Senate, supporters were quick to respond to any implication that their measure was unethical
    Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the bill’s chief sponsor, said 50,000 children were born last year to couples using in vitro fertilization. ‘‘Obviously there are some embryos left over. They would like to be able to donate those for research because they’re not going to have any more children,’’ he said.
    ‘‘So it seems to me the ethics of this are you just going to discard those, or would it be more ethical to use them to save lives.’’
    Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, agreed. The leftover cells are ‘‘discarded every day, every month, every year as medical waste. How much more life enhancing it would be to use them for research that would save lives, that could preserve lives, that would prolong lives,’’ she said.
    But Republicans touted their alternative.
    ‘‘It’s an affirmation of the need to expand federally funded stem cell research,’’ said Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia. He said the measure would permit research on cells derived from amniotic fluid and placentas and from embryos that have died naturally.
    The bill would respect ‘‘the ethical and scientific and moral concerns existing in the medical community today,’’ he said.
    Whatever the science, there was little dispute about the outcome.
    The bill passed the Senate with 63 votes last year, and by most counts, supporters picked up two more supporters as the result of last fall’s elections. That still left them one shy of the two-thirds needed to override the veto and give them momentum for a final push in the House.
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