Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - As promised by Democrats, the newly reconfigured House of Representatives this week is taking up legislation to loosen embryonic stem cell research restrictions, and some of its backers on Capitol Hill are confident that it will pass this year.

The measure is scheduled for floor action on Thursday, with a vote to follow three hours of debate, making it among the first bills up for consideration in the new congressional session. That early activity fulfills a campaign promise made by House Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who promised to make the issue a priority when the party took control of the lower chamber in November's election.

It's likely to be brought up soon after in the Senate as one of this session's first bills considered by that body.

Of note, the issue bridges both sides of the aisle and continues to enjoy bipartisan backing in Congress as it did last year, when the bill passed the House by a 238-194 vote and the Senate cleared it with a 63-37 margin. It died with President Bush's first and only veto to date. This time around, supporters hope to secure enough votes for an override.

"Support is even stronger in the 110th Congress than in the 109th," said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) during a Tuesday news conference. She noted that the "vast majority" of freshmen lawmakers favor the bill, and a number of those who voted against it last year have switched their votes or are considering doing so. "This is an issue that will not go away."

The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007, H.R. 3, is identical to last year's bill, which was widely championed by DeGette and Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.). It would broaden federal funding for research on stem cells derived from embryos slated to be discarded from in vitro fertilization clinics. A staff person from Castle's office told BioWorld Today that Thursday's House vote would include no amendments.

However, the Senate version of the bill, S. 5, might include amendments that could make the legislation more palatable to Bush, a compromise of sorts. Any amendments would necessitate a conference committee to merge both chambers' versions of the bill, and as a result, a final draft would emerge from the Senate to be forwarded to the president. Should Bush again exercise his veto power, an override vote would therefore first take place in the upper chamber, and a couple of senators said they have the votes to succeed.

"I'm going way out on a limb on this," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said at a Tuesday's news conference, noting that the issue would "be resolved one way or another" this year. "I do believe that we have the votes to override in the Senate."

To do so, 67 are needed, and he confirmed 66 allies at this point. Given the different political dynamic in play since last summer, Harkin predicted that some senators who voted against the bill last time "are going to change their positions."

A subsequent House override would be needed next, requiring 290 votes. Although DeGette declined to estimate the number of votes still needed to reach that threshold, she sounded a positive note. "We think we're doing quite well." She also noted that the matter could advance through a different vehicle, such as must-pass legislation, as an alternative.

While it remains uncertain whether the bill's congressional proponents would have enough votes for an override, it's clear that the administration's sustained opposition continues to contrast with public opinion. Results of a recent survey conducted on behalf of the Civil Society Institute think tank indicate that 68 percent of respondents favor congressional approval on the matter. That group includes Democrats and Republicans, as well as independent and religious voters. In addition, 63 percent believe that Congress should override the expected veto.

Despite such public support, the latest report out on another alternate source of stem cells, amniotic fluid, potentially clouds the issue. Embryonic stem cell opponents regard amniotic fluid-derived stem cells, as well as those that come from umbilical cord blood and adult bone marrow, as viable substitutes. But no one appears ready to abandon embryonic stem cells.

"Each field of research should complement the other," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said at Tuesday's news conference. Therefore, he added, the federal government "shouldn't be hamstringing" embryonic stem cell research.

Castle, who said he expects H.R. 3 to pass the House vote "fairly comfortably," has said in the past that the bill would become law after Bush leaves office, if the president continues to uphold his five-and-a-half-year-old policy.