Stem cell vote a big rebuff to Bush

Scientists hailed the May 24 bipartisan House vote to expand embryonic stem cell research, a major rebuff to President Bush. They urged a fight to push the measure through the Senate.

Fifty Republican representatives broke with Bush and the ultra-right in voting for the bill, cosponsored by Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Michael Castle (R-Del.). The vote, 238-194, is 50 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override Bush’s promised veto. But it is a stunning slap at right-wing extremists who have sought to whip up hysteria over embryonic stem cell research.

Embryonic stem cells “represent enormous scientific and therapeutic promise,” Carrie Wolinetz, spokesperson for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), told the World. Expanding the ability to fund stem cell research is “the right thing to do for medicine, and the right thing to do for delivering hope to those suffering from debilitating conditions,” she said.

Wolinetz called the House vote a crucial first step. “We’re taking this one step at a time, concentrating now on the Senate,” she said. “We’re very optimistic. This bill has strong bipartisan support in the Senate. There is a great deal of concern that we could lose our competitive edge if we do not move forward with embryonic stem cell research.” FASEB has 65,000 researchers in 22 scientific and medical societies.

The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR), which ranges from the American Medical Association to the American Foundation for AIDS Research, also urged the Senate to pass the measure.

Calling the House vote “historic,” CAMR President Daniel Perry said, “Members from both sides of the aisle joined forces to take a stand for patients.” The strongly bipartisan vote, “in a time of increased tension between the parties,” shows “it doesn’t matter what your political or religious beliefs are — stem cell research touches us all,” he said.

Sean Tipton, a spokesperson for the coalition, told the World, “We are very confident that we have a Senate majority. It’s just a question of how large that majority is. Will it be big enough to overcome a filibuster? And can we override a presidential veto?” He urged people to call their senators to ask them to vote for this bill, adding, “People should call the White House and ask Bush not to veto it.”

Tipton said grassroots lobbying by people battling degenerative diseases is helping tip the balance. Jackie Hunt Christensen of Minnesota, a victim of Parkinson’s disease, watched the House debate from her wheelchair in the House gallery. After the vote, she told a CAMR news conference, “I’ve had Parkinson’s for more than eight years and winning today means I might have a chance to stand up and walk at my children’s graduation in a few years.”

Bush brought mothers with babies conceived in vitro to the White House to serve as stage props as he announced his veto threat. “Every human life is a gift of matchless love,” Bush gushed.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) crooned, “An embryo is a person. … The choice [is] to protect a human embryo from federally funded destruction.”

Tipton debunked this “right-to-life” hysteria. “Being pro-stem-cell is being pro-cure and that means it is pro-life,” he said. Tipton cited right-wing Republican Joe Barton of Texas, who said, “I have a perfect pro-life voting record and I am voting for this bill.”

The stem cells covered by the House bill, HR 810, come from excess fertilized eggs stored at in vitro fertility clinics. There are tens of thousands of these fertilized eggs. HR 810 provides for an informed consent clause that egg donors sign saying they prefer the embryo be used for research rather than stored indefinitely or discarded.

Bush and the Republican right faced other setbacks on Capitol Hill last week.

A bipartisan bloc of senators had put together a deal to avoid the so-called “nuclear option,” the GOP drive to repeal the filibuster rule requiring 60 votes to end debate in the Senate.

The deal speeded confirmation of a few extreme right judges while leaving the Senate rule intact. It was hailed as a victory for bipartisan compromise. But two days later, Democratic senators again blocked Bush’s choice for UN ambassador, John Bolton, when Republicans fell four votes short of the majority they needed to end debate. It was the shortest honeymoon in Washington that anyone could remember.