By Lisa Seachrist
WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's (R-Miss.) intention to pass a cloning ban before the Presidents' Day recess got stuck at an impasse as the Senate voted 54-42 against bringing the anti-cloning bill to the floor for debate.
When the legislation (S. 1601), sponsored by Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), was introduced to the Senate Feb. 5, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) objected to the motion and began a filibuster to block consideration of the bill because it imperiled legitimate research and skipped the standard committee process.
Lott tried to invoke cloture in order to break the filibuster and bring the bill before the Senate, but fell 18 votes short of the required 60.
"This was a substantial victory," said Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). "It was the defeat of a high-stakes gambit to bypass the normal committee procedure for scientifically and ethically complex legislation and bring it directly to the Senate floor. This was a short but very bruising battle."
Bond's legislation, cosponsored by Sens. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), calls for a permanent ban on any attempts to produce a human embryo using somatic cell nuclear transfer technology. Researchers, either publicly or privately funded, who defy the ban would receive a federal prison term of up to 10 years.
BIO, in conjunction with other industry groups, professional societies and patient advocacy organizations, is opposed to the legislation because it frames the cloning issue in terms of embryo research and the contentious abortion debate. In so doing, these organizations say the legislation would prohibit research to develop stem cell therapies for the treatment of heart disease, diabetes, hepatitis, Huntington's disease and spinal cord injuries, among other ailments.
Feldbaum noted that in the time between the beginning of the filibuster and the cloture vote, biomedical research advocates worked overtime to convince lawmakers the Senate leadership was being too hasty in its desire to ban cloning.
"It was painful to go up against some of our friends in the Senate," Feldbaum said. "But we had to convince them that the debate over the cloning of human beings should be kept distinct from that of embryo research."
In voting against invoking cloture, 11 Republicans crossed the aisle and voted against considering the bill. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) read a letter detailing how S. 1601 could stymie the development of diabetes treatment, which convinced him the bill needed more consideration. Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) joined Thurmond in opposing the bill because of its potentially chilling effect on research.
"My father died of cancer. My mother died of cancer. My brother died of cancer. I was diagnosed with cancer. My wife was diagnosed with cancer. Our daughter was diagnosed with cancer. We are all against cloning," Mack said. "[But] 71 patient groups and scientific organizations are against this legislation. Twenty-seven Nobel Laureates say this legislation may have unintended implications for otherwise valuable research."
Mack went on to note the legislation should be the subject of committee hearings in order to get input from scientists and patient groups.
"We should move the process forward so anti-cloning legislation does not have unintended effects on promising medical research," Mack said. "We owe it to our children and our grandchildren not to limit the ability of our scientists to find better treatments, and possibly cures, for the diseases that face our families."
In blocking the legislation from being discussed on the Senate floor, the bill must now be considered by committee before it can be brought back to the whole Senate.
BIO Says Cloning Law Unnecessary
Feldbaum said S. 1601 was a "seriously imprecise bill" that BIO could not support. BIO does not believe it is necessary for Congress to enact a law on this subject because the FDA stated its intention to assert regulatory authority on any attempts to clone humans.
However, Feldbaum noted if a ban were to be enacted the organization would prefer legislation similar to the initiative introduced last week by Feinstein and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).
The Feinstein-Kennedy bill has precise definitions and prohibits only the implantation of an embryo made through somatic cell nuclear transfer into a woman for the purpose of creating a human. For those who would defy the ban, the legislation gives the U.S. attorney general exclusive enforcement authority to assess fines of $250,000 or two times the gross gain or loss resulting from the violations. In addition, the ban has a sunset provision at 10 years to allow lawmakers to reconsider it.
Both bills will be debated by committees, but because the Bond bill calls for criminal penalties, it must be taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Feinstein-Kennedy effort will come before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.
"It is unclear how the fact that the two bills are in front of different committees will sort itself out," Feldbaum said. "This is really the first round of what promises to be a complex fight."
The House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health and Environment takes up the issue of cloning legislation today. *