Expected Stem-cell Vote Poses Dilemmas for Republican Hopefuls

By Jennifer Siegel

Published July 14, 2006, issue of July 14, 2006.
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The presidential elections are more than two years away, but some Beltway insiders are already dubbing the Senate’s impending consideration of embryonic stem-cell research “a 2008 vote.”

The issue, which is slated for an up-or-down vote on July 18, is heating up a year after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and likely presidential candidate, unexpectedly endorsed overriding President Bush’s restrictions on federally funded stem-cell research.

In recent weeks, Republican leaders in Congress have focused considerable energy on social issues — including constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage and to authorize Congress to outlaw desecration of the American flag — that play to their party’s base. But the stem-cell debate has proven to be considerably more rocky terrain.

A vocal segment of the Republican base has opposed research on embryonic stem cells, the primal cells that can divide and differentiate into all other cell types, leading researchers to hope they can be used to cure a broad spectrum of maladies including Alzheimer’s disease and paralysis. Polls, however, show that a majority of Americans, including some Republicans who oppose abortion rights, favor government funding of stem-cell research.

“I’m not really sure that a lot of Republicans want a vote on this right now, period,” said Jennifer Duffy, an editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “It’s complicated, and its fairly untested. [The Democrats] believe this is their wedge issue … [but] I think that we’re not going to really know until [the November elections].”

The debate over embryonic stem cells has been active since August 2001, when Bush issued an executive order restricting federal research funds to a small number of lines created before that time. Subsequently, many of those stem-cell lines were found to be defective, and in May of last year the House of Representatives passed a bill, H.R. 810, to override the Bush restrictions.

In July 2005, Frist, a medical doctor and generally a Bush loyalist, infuriated some religious conservatives when he came out against Bush’s position for the first time and promised to bring the issue up for a vote in the Senate.

Under an agreement brokered by Frist two weeks ago, the Senate will consider the House bill at the same as two other measures — one of which would encourage research into adult stem cells and the other of which would ban so-called “fetal farms”— with no amendments permitted and a corresponding 60-vote threshold for passage.

Several stem-cell advocates that spoke with the Forward said that they were cautiously optimistic about the prospects of the House bill, but said they worried that the other two bills in the package would provide political cover for Republican dissenters who want to appeal to the religious right, without alienating the wider public. They fear that Bush would take a similar approach, feeling politically confident enough to follow through on his threat to veto the House bill, because he could then sign the measure encouraging alternative stem-cell research.

“We think there will be some people telling the president, ‘Look, you can just sign this decoy bill and get away with it,’” said Dan Perry of the Alliance for Aging Research. Then he would “claim that he is on the side of the angels.”

A number of Republicans with rumored presidential ambitions have wrestled with the political implications of the stem-cell research. While Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and a co-sponsor of the bill banning fetal farming, has consistently opposed embryonic stem-cell research, other likely members of the 2008 GOP field — including Frist, Senator John McCain of Arizona and Senator George Allen of Virginia — have been equivocal or reversed course.

Frist, a transplant surgeon, has said he will vote for all three bills in the package, which his spokesperson, Carolyn Weyforth, said was intended to broaden “the spectrum and allows people to vote according to their conscience and according to science.”

Hadar Susskind, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ representative in Washington, told the Forward that “there’s no question” Frist “is trying to have it both ways.”

“I give him credit for bringing it up and doing what he said he would do,” Susskind said. But, he added, “I would not exactly call him a champion on this issue.”

Allen — who political observers say will need religious conservatives if he hopes to emerge from the primaries as the GOP presidential candidate — was initially supportive of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. But he reversed course last summer, and said he would only support research that did not destroy embryos.

In contrast, McCain, who depends on support from independent voters, has grown increasingly supportive of stem cell research.

While he was not among the 58 U.S. senators who in June 2004 signed a letter asking the president to loosen his restrictions, in May of last year he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he favored embryonic stem cell research, albeit with caveats.

“I think we need to expand it, but I think we’ve got to be very, very careful that we don’t in any way get into cloning,” McCain reportedly said. “And I’m not smart enough to … know where that line is … I think that we need to expand stem cell research, but I would also err on the side of caution.”

This election season, meanwhile, Democrats are raising the stem-cell debate in a host of races — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has financed television advertisements highlighting the issue in a number of races — while Republicans around the country are finding it to be an Achilles’ heel.

The battle over the research is particularly fierce in Missouri, where Republican Senator Jim Talent is facing one of the closest races in the country. He has withstood a barrage of criticism from his likely Democratic challenger, State Auditor Claire McCaskill, over Talent’s opposition to a ballot proposal on stem cells, at the same time that he is being pressed by anti-abortion and Catholic supporters to stand firm against the measure.

The proposal, which polls say is supported by Missouri voters by a margin of 2-to-1, is designed to counter repeated attempts by Republican state legislators to outlaw embryonic stem-cell research in the state. It would amend the state constitution to permit the research in accordance with federal law.

Talent announced in May that he opposed the ballot measure — which is supported by other pro-life Republicans, including Missouri Governor Matt Blunt — after months of indecision on the issue.

At the same time, on the national stage he has developed cold feet about coming out too strongly against stem-cell research; in February, Talent removed himself as co-sponsor of Brownback’s stem-cell bill.

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