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News has admittedly been slow in Washington this month, but politicos and wonks take heart: the Senate seems likely to approve federal funding for stem cell legislation sometime in the next few days (the House passed stem cell funding last year), setting up a showdown between Congress and President Bush, who has promised to veto any legislation that increases funding for embryonic stem cell research. Cue the Clint Eastwood soundtrack, and don’t forget to take cover in the nearest saloon, folks! You don’t want to get caught in the midst of this rodeo face-off.

The Senate is considering H.R. 810, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which passed the House 238-194 (including 50 Republicans). The bill has bipartisan support and enough votes (at least 60) to guarantee its passage. Republican backers include Sen. Arlen Specter (the least crazy person in Pennsylvania’s senatorial delegation, though I think we can all agree that’s not saying much), who yesterday compared the president’s position against stem cell research to those who opposed Columbus, imprisoned Galileo, and rejected anesthesia, electricity, vaccines, and rail travel, saying that such views “in retrospect look foolish, look absolutely ridiculous,” and challenged Bush to sign the legislation. Even Majority Leader (and White House-wannabe) Bill Frist, who had previously been opposed to increased federal funding for stem cell research, seems to have seen the light (or more likely, polling that shows Americans favor stem cell research 2-1), and called for the Senate to approve the bill, saying that “the current policy unduly restricts the number of cell lines.”

Sen. Frist is absolutely right. (Wait, time out. Everyone, look out your window. Anybody see any flying pigs? Really? No? Okay, well, then, I suppose even Dr. Frist is bound to take the correct position on something eventually, even if only by accident.)

Current administration policy limits federal funding to research on 64 existing stem cell lines worldwide “where the life and death decision has already been made.” It is unclear whether at least a third of these designated lines are scientifically viable for research. Declaring 64 lines, many of which are contaminated and unusable, as sufficient for research that has the potential to save thousands of lives and ease the suffering of millions is a preposterous proposal.

Opening increased funding for stem cell research introduces the prospect of curing or reducing the symptoms of countless diseases afflicting millions of Americans nationwide, including cancerous tumors, spinal cord injuries, organ defects, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and a whole host of other ailments, even baldness. Even Nancy Reagan, the veritable Queen Mother of GOP conservatives, supports the measure. One has to wonder why the Republicans are even wasting their time putting up a fight at all. (All together, class: Can you say "rallying the base in an election year"?)

Although I do have to say that the ridiculous debate over stem cells certainly has its upsides, specifically the hilarious stream of quotable moments it is currently producing on the Senate floor. (Watching C-SPAN online is an excellent way to pass hours if it’s a slow day at the office, you should try it.) Check out this gem, courtesy of Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Crazyville), who seems to be unaware that extra embryos conceived and later frozen as part of IVF treatments for infertile couples are likely to be discarded with or without stem cell research, invalidating his point that stem cell research destroys human life.

Sen. Frist has promised a floor vote soon, and since the bill seems destined to pass, the only question is whether or not supporters will be able to muster the 67 votes necessary to override a veto that seems imminent. Keep your eyes posted.

Update 7/19: The Senate passed the bill as expected yesterday, 63-37. President Bush just signed his first-ever veto. Supporters of the bill do not appear to have enough votes (2/3 of each house) to override.

2 comments:

OrSkolnik said...

And it's done. Bush's first veto is cast. Of course, Bush's team are the masters of PR. Look at this CNN story:

http://www.cnn.com/2006/POLITICS/07/19/stemcells.veto/index.html

What better way to veto an extraordinarily popular bill than to pose with children adopted as embryos? This is a good PR move on so many levels, I'm not even going to start talking about it, except to say this: we need PR geniuses like that on our side.

Rach C said...

Or just more little girls like this.