By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON — House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) has charged the House Commerce Committee with producing a bill that would allow the chamber to vote on a cloning ban before the Memorial Day recess.

"The Majority Leader is quite committed to passing a cloning ban," an Armey spokesperson told BioWorld Today. "It's very important to him, and he plans a floor vote by Memorial Day [May 25]."

The Commerce Health and Environment Subcommittee held a hearing on cloning in February, but the committee has yet to produce a bill for mark-up. To date, the only member of the House to introduce legislation banning cloning is Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.). Those bills, H.R. 922 and H.R. 923, ban federal funding of cloning research and human cloning respectively.

"This is definitely a priority for Chairman [Tom] Bliley [R-Va.]," a Commerce Committee spokesperson said. "The committee has been meeting with all of the stakeholders to draft legislation. It is a complex issue."

Even though the committee has yet to move forward, Armey will not simply bring the bill to the House floor, bypassing the committee process as his counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), did. When Lott attempted to do that in the Senate in February, he failed to get the necessary votes to break a filibuster begun by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Lott needed 60 votes to move the bill forward, but received only 42 (See BioWorld Today, Feb. 12, 1998, p.1.)

The day after that defeat, the House held a hearing on cloning during which religious leaders, researchers and industry representatives testified on the merits of the ban. The discussion that day, however, boiled down to a rehash of the contentious human embryo research debate: whether the process of somatic cell nuclear transfer into an enucleated egg creates an embryo, and whether Congress should ban that type of research.

Ehlers' Language Too Broad, Say BIO, PhRMA

The language in Ehlers' bill refers not only to cloning a human being, but to creating a human embryo using somatic cell nuclear transfer. Both the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) object to that language as overly broad and likely to prohibit legitimate forms of research such as cloning tissue and organs.

BIO and PhRMA question the need for any immediate legislation, since the FDA has asserted its regulatory authority over any cloning attempts. Both organizations urge caution in devising legislation.

The Commerce Committee is evaluating the Ehlers legislation as a vehicle to move a cloning ban forward. However, the committee spokesperson noted the bill is unlikely to go forward as written, and the committee is attempting to address the concerns from industry and researchers. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether the committee will have a bill to mark up in order to meet Armey's deadline. *