Likely Veto Sinks Hope on Stem Cells

By Jennifer Siegel

Published July 21, 2006, issue of July 21, 2006.

After years of lobbying for embryonic stem-cell research, Jewish activists braced themselves this week for President Bush’s promised veto of a bill that would have provided federal funding for the research.

“I’m disappointed,” said Marla Gilson, the director of the Washington Action Office of Hadassah, the country’s largest Jewish membership organization. “In some ways, this in an exercise in futility. We’re going through the motions, and it’s useful to educate senators about the science, but in the end the legislation will not be enacted.”

Over the past week, the White House has insisted repeatedly that Bush would veto the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, or H.R. 810, a bill that would overturn the president’s August 2001 executive order restricting federal dollars to a small number of embryonic stem-cell lines created before that time. The House of Representatives passed the bill in 2005 by a vote of 238 to 194. The Senate approved the measure 63-37 in a vote Tuesday. Both chambers are expected to fall short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.

“This vote is pro-research and pro-cures,” said Kent E. Schiner, an honorary president of B’nai B’rith International, in a statement. “My son is paralyzed from the waist down; this research may offer him the chance to walk again. A presidential veto will set back progress.”

Political observers have predicted that a Bush veto could hurt some Republicans in tight races by creating the impression that the GOP is beholden to religious conservatives who oppose embryonic stem-cell research, and argue that the destruction of the embryos involved is akin to taking human life. Polls show that about 70% of Americans favor stem-cell research, which scientists say offers the best hope for curing paralysis and several diseases, including Parkinson’s. Many Republicans, including erstwhile allies of the Christian right, have come out in favor of federal funding for the research.

Several of the Jewish groups that have long lobbied for the issue — including Hadassah, the Orthodox Union, B’nai B’rith International and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism — sent letters of support for the stem-cell bill to the Senate in the days before Tuesday’s vote. Several of the groups said their members had also been asked to contact their legislators.

But in the midst of a week bursting with competing priorities — including the passage of congressional resolutions in support of Israel — the Jewish groups varied in the degree to which they mounted a last-minute push for the stem-cell bill.

Barbara Weinstein, legislative director of the Religious Action Center, said that despite the president’s promised veto, the Reform movement had continued to lobby forcefully on the bill and had sent interns to every Senate office.

“It is a busy week, but these are all things we care about, so we’re doing everything we can to put 100% into all of them,” Weinstein told the Forward.

But Nathan Diament, director of the Institute of Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union, said that he was putting a “huge amount of energy” into lobbying on Israel, and was no longer actively lobbying about stem cells by early this week.

“It seems to be that the script has been written and everyone knows how the play is going to turn out,” Diament said.

Along similar lines, Diament said that he would not be investing much time in lobbying to override a Bush veto, because the votes are not there. Officials at other Jewish groups were not as direct, but seemed to suggest that they, too, were likely to concede defeat.

Bush was expected to sign a bill preventing embryos from being harvested solely to extract stem cells for research. A third measure, with the goal of encouraging research that does not require the destruction of embryos, also passed the Senate but failed to clear the House due to a procedural obstacle.



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