April 11, 2007 -- The Senate voted Wednesday to repeal the Bush administration's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, marking the second time in less than a year Congress has voted by wide bipartisan margins to reverse the president.
President Bush vetoed the bill last year and threatened Tuesday to do so again. If he does, the Senate could move soon to attempt to override the veto. Wednesday's 63-34 tally put the supporters of a repeal within close range of the two-thirds majority needed to override the president's veto.
The vote sets up another showdown over the embryonic stem cell issue, which played a prominent role in congressional elections last year.
Still, the vote could amount to little more than a political exercise, at least for the moment. In January the House passed its version of the bill by 253 to 174, nearly 40 votes short of a two-thirds majority.
Supporters acknowledged that they were unlikely to succeed in reversing Bush's stem cell policy as long as he's in office.
"It's one of those battles you have to keep fighting until you win," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a supporter of the bill. "This is a bill we're going to win on eventually."
As much as 70% of the public has told pollsters they support expanding federal funding of stem cell studies. But Bush has remained steadfast in opposition because such an expansion would be achieved by destroying embryos for their cells.
Many lawmakers remain opposed to the research on moral grounds. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said the bill "crosses a moral line" by destroying embryos. He sponsored a second bill promoting alternative stem cell sources.
"[The Senate bill] is going to be vetoed, and that means it doesn't go anywhere," said Coleman. The alternative "does move the ball forward."
The White House said the president would sign a second bill also passed by the Senate promoting research that spares embryos.
Role of Stem Cells in Research
Embryonic stem cells are considered an important new avenue for research because of their ability to form any tissue in the body. Research on the cells has not yet yielded any cures for human diseases.
But scientists theorize that the ability to grow new tissue from stem cells makes them a prime candidate for new ways to treat degenerative disorders like diabetes or Parkinson's disease.
The Senate bill overturns a decision issued by Bush in August 2001 that limited federal embryonic stem cell research funding to about 70 cell lines already derived at that time. Bush billed the decision as a compromise allowing science to proceed without letting taxpayer money go to the destruction of embryos.
Most of the scientific community chafed at the decision. Since 2001, the number of cell lines viable for research under the plan has dropped to around 20, and researchers complain that those lines lack the genetic diversity to make them useful.
The issue recently caused a split in Bush administration ranks. Last month, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Elias Zerhouni, MD, called White House limits on embryonic stem cell research "shortsighted" and suggesting the nation would benefit if the policy were reversed.
"It is clear today that American science will be better served and the nation will be better served if we let our scientists have access to more cell lines," Zerhouni told a Senate committee on March 19.
Zerhouni later played down the importance of the remarks. But supporters of the research on Capitol Hill quickly pointed out that it was the first time Zerhouni, a Bush political appointee, had publicly criticized the policy after years of voicing support for it.
It is unclear whether the Senate will muster enough votes to override a veto. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-N.D., supports the repeal but did not vote because he is recovering from a brain hemorrhage. Supporters are hoping to put enough pressure on lawmakers in moderate states in the hopes that one or two more will switch sides.
The House is likely to soon vote again on the issue. The Senate added a provision to its bill requiring the NIH to fund research into methods of extracting human stem cells without destroying embryos. Before the bill goes to the president, the House will have to pass its bill with the new provision included.