A bill that would allow federal funding for derivation of new lines of human embryonic stem (ES) cells passed the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday 238 to 194 after more than four hours of debate. The bill is unlikely to become law, however: Even if a similar measure passes the Senate, President George Bush has promised to veto any bill that reaches his desk.
Nonetheless, passage of the measure marks a significant milestone in efforts to overturn the Bush policy, which limits government funding to research using 60 human ES cell lines derived before 9 August, 2001. Congressional members, leaders at the National Institutes of Health, and a variety of patient groups have expressed increasing dissatisfaction with the president's policy as the limitations of existing cell lines--22 of which are available--have become clear.
The passage of H.R. 810, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, marks a significant pro-stem cell shift in the House. Republican congressman and abortion opponent Mike Castle (R-DL) co-authored the bill with Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO), and it garnered 201 co-signers, nearly half the House's membership. It won support in spite of two previous House votes to outlaw all forms of cloning, including research cloning (otherwise known as nuclear transfer), which scientists say is essential to realize the promise of ES cell research.
A separate bill to create banks of umbilical cord blood for adult stem cell research--presented by opponents of HR 810 as an alternative rallying point--sailed through the House 431 to 1. That bill is supported by the White House.
By omitting any mention of nuclear transfer, Castle and DeGette's bill managed to attract a number of abortion opponents. H.R. 810 has a tight focus: It allows couples to donate to science excess fertilized eggs that would otherwise be discarded from fertility clinics. The bill would not permit the creation of embryos solely for research. Even with this limitation, it met with some emotional resistance by opponents. "You, too, were an embryo once!" said Mike Ferguson (R-NJ) addressing the bill's supporters. Majority leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) delivered an impassioned speech, saying that "we cannot use U.S. taxpayer dollars to destroy" embryos.
Reaction to the vote was immediate and jubilant. "Today's vote shows strong and gratifying bipartisan support for stem cell research," said Jordan J. Cohen, president of the Association of American Medical Colleges in a statement.
Next stop is the Senate. Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) held a press conference today to announce they have sent a letter to Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-TN) urging him to schedule a vote on an identically worded Senate bill that was introduced in February.