WASHINGTON - The House overwhelmingly approved legislation yesterday that would loosen the restrictions on human embryonic stem-cell research imposed by President Bush in 2001, inaugurating the second such assault on the administration's stem-cell policy in as many years.
Thirty-seven Republicans joined 216 Democrats to pass the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which would allow federal funding of research on stem cells from embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics.
The 253-174 vote fell 37 votes short of the number needed to override a presidential veto. Bush promised yesterday that he would veto the legislation, assuming the Senate passed the same bill, as expected. He vetoed the stem-cell measure passed last year.
Supporters of the measure said they still had several options and promised to persevere until the legislation became law.
"While it's not enough to override a veto, it's enough to show we have tremendous momentum," said Rep. Diana DeGette (D., Colo.), who led the House effort with Rep. Michael N. Castle (R., Del.).
With the Senate already within one vote of having the two-thirds majority it would need for an override, and with the Democrats now in a majority position that will allow them to use procedural rules in their favor, DeGette suggested that it was time for the president to begin negotiating with Congress over compromise language.
"The vote today shows that productive discussions might be a very, very good idea for all concerned," she said.
Under the existing policy, federal funds may be used to study only those stem cells taken from embryos destroyed by Aug. 9, 2001 - or about 21 of the nearly 400 stem-cell colonies created since 1998.
The House-based bill would expand that pool of available cells to include those from any of the thousands of embryos that are discarded by fertility clinics each year, as long as those cells were freely donated for research by the parents. It also would impose ethics rules on embryo research.
The vote came after about three hours of impassioned speeches by members on both sides of the issue.
Rep. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) warned that passage would lead to a "slippery slope." Before long, he said, scientists would routinely be creating human embryos "for the express purpose of killing that embryo" for research.
On the other side, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D., Mass.) warned that if Congress did not override a Bush veto this time, "this will be remembered as a Luddite Moment in American history, where fear triumphed over hope and ideology triumphed over science."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D., Ill.) wondered aloud - not seriously, he assured - whether those voting against the bill would be willing to waive their right to access the cures that would come from the work.
When the final vote was tallied, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) took to the podium and announced with apparent glee: "The bill is passed!"
Passage came into question only briefly, when Rep. Michael Burgess (R., Texas) introduced a motion that would have amended the bill to include broad new limits on scientists' ability to clone human embryos for research.
Scientists have said cloned human embryos offer a unique opportunity to create stem cells with particular genetic defects, giving researchers an unprecedented window into the underpinnings of birth defects and a wide range of diseases.
Current federal policy already precludes the use of federal funds for such studies. But Burgess' motion would have cut off all federal embryonic stem-cell grant money for any laboratory where embryo-cloning research was under way, even with private money.
The motion was defeated, 238-189, after a frantic effort by leaders in both parties.
Senate leaders have said that they plan to take up the bill next month.
Representatives from the Philadelphia area who voted for the bill were Robert E. Andrews
(D., N.J.), Robert A. Brady (D., Pa.), Michael N. Castle (R., Del.), Charles W. Dent (R., Pa.) Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.), Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.), Tim Holden (D., Pa.), Patrick Murphy (D., Pa.), Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.) and Joe Sestak (D., Pa.).
Voting against the bill were Frank A. LoBiondo (R., N.J.), Joseph R. Pitts (R., Pa.), H. James Saxton (R., N.J.) and Christopher H. Smith (R., N.J.).
President Bush promised yesterday to veto Democratic-drafted legislation requiring the government
to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices under Medicare. The House is to debate and vote today on the bill.
"Government interference impedes competition, limits access to lifesaving drugs, reduces convenience for beneficiaries and ultimately increases costs to taxpayers, beneficiaries and all American citizens alike," the administration said in a written statement.
Further, the administration said, competition already "is reducing prices to seniors, providing a wide range of choices and leading to
a more productive environment for the development of new drugs."
Several Democrats campaigned last fall as critics of the one-year-old program that offers prescription-drug coverage under Medicare, saying it tilted too heavily toward profits for the pharmaceutical and insurance industries.
Now, private drug plans negotiate how much they
will pay for the medicine their customers take. Legislation under review today would require the secretary of Health and Human Services to do so.
- Associated Press