Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives said yes to a bill to lift restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research despite a veto threat from President Bush.

"This is the first victory we've had on a national, federal level," said Susan DeLaurentis, the CEO of a California organization called the Foundation for Stem Cell Research. "I think it's a huge first step, but there's a long road to go from here."

The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which passed with a vote of 238-194, would allow federal money for research resulting from excess embryos produced at in vitro fertilization clinics. Such funding remains restricted at the moment, due to White House-imposed rules established in August 2001.

Contrary to the administration's stance, of note on the House floor was the bill's backing on both sides of the aisle. Co-sponsored by Reps. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), its supporters included a number of Republicans who broke with opposition rooted in the pro-life agenda.

"It's important that a bipartisan group in Congress has put politics aside," DeLaurentis told BioWorld Today, adding that the favorable votes of nine California Republicans are indicative that "Congress is listening to the will of the American people, when you have every recent poll showing that Americans are in favor of moving forward with this research."

Such bipartisan backing also is evident in the Senate, where companion legislation supported by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) soon is expected to receive a vote. Wednesday, that trio and other colleagues called on the Senate's leadership to take up stem cell research legislation.

But further down the road, a veto seems likely on the Castle-DeGette bill, which is labeled H.R. 810. Illustrating his opposition, President Bush essentially laid the groundwork for just that, should the bill reach the Oval Office. Speaking at a White House event, he was flanked by parents and babies who had been adopted as embryos that otherwise would have been discarded by in vitro fertilization clinics.

"We should not use public money to support the further destruction of human life," he said, adding that the Castle-DeGette bill "violates the clear standard I set four years ago."

A two-thirds majority is needed in both the House and Senate to override a veto; Bush has yet to veto a measure since taking office.

Castle and DeGette have noted that their bill does not preclude the adoption of embryos, but rather provides another option to being discarded. And while Bush acknowledged that embryonic stem cell research "may offer great promise," he countered that "the way that those cells are derived today destroys the embryo."

He stressed that human lives are involved on both sides of the equation - those of the diseased hoping for cures and those in their early stages as embryos.

"The children here today remind us that there is no such thing as a spare embryo," Bush said. "Every embryo is unique and genetically complete, like every other human being, and each of us started out our lives this way. These lives are not raw materials to be exploited."

Also pushing a pro-life agenda in opposing the Castle-DeGette bill are House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), who co-chairs the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus. Smith co-sponsored a bill that would increase federal funding for umbilical cord blood stem cell research, the Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005, which passed 430-1. Labeled H.R. 2520, it would provide $79 million in federal money to increase the number of cord blood units available to match and treat patients.

Castle and DeGette called the measure complementary to their bill, though Smith painted it as a more ethical means of researching stem cells. Its backers highlighted pediatric and adult patients who have been helped by cord blood-derived therapies, and Bush pointed toward "different ethical ways of getting the same kind of cells now taken from embryos without violating human life and dignity."

"With the right policies and the right techniques," he added, "we can pursue scientific progress while still fulfilling our moral duties."

Nevertheless, supporters of the Castle-DeGette bill aren't conceding that their momentum will die on the president's desk. DeLaurentis, reiterating the measure's bipartisan backing, said "hopefully those heads will prevail over the White House when it comes to negotiating some sort of a deal on this."