U.S. Senate Passes Stem Cell Bill

The U.S. Senate this afternoon voted to override Administration policy on human embryonic stem (ES) cells by allowing federally funded scientists to work with cell lines derived after the presidential cut-off date of 9 August 2001. But President George W. Bush is expected to kill the measure this week, wielding the first veto of his career.

The Senate passed H.R. 810 by 63-37 after 2 days of debate, 14 months after the House approved the same measure (ScienceNOW, 25 May 2005). Supporters achieved the 60-vote majority needed to avoid a filibuster by the bill's opponents. But the vote fell short of the two-thirds needed to override the promised veto. Thus neither the House nor the Senate has the votes to counter the President.

Supporters of stem cell research worked hard to get the Senate to vote on the bill exactly as it was passed by the House so that it could swiftly be sent on to the President. Senate leaders put together a bi-partisan "unanimous consent" agreement, which called on the Senate to vote on two other stem-cell related bills along with H.R. 810, both of them designed to appeal to those who oppose research involving the destruction of human fertilized eggs (Science, 7 July, p. 26). One, S. 3504, outlaws gestation of human embryos solely for research purposes. The other, S. 2754, encourages the government to do something it already does: fund research on "alternatives" to embryos as a source of pluripotent stem cells.

Both of these bills passed unanimously, and the House was expected to pass them tonight as well so the trio of measures could be on the President's desk by Wednesday. Bush expects to sign two of them and veto H.R. 810, press secretary Tony Snow confirmed in a press conference today. Snow said the President does not want to approach "the slippery slope of taking something that is living and making it dead for the purpose of research."

Stem cell activists refused to speculate before the vote how they would proceed following a presidential veto. If they want to continue to push for changes in federal policy, they'll have to start all over again when a new Congress is seated next January.

Scientists say they need access to more than the 21 human ES cell lines currently available to federally funded researchers. They explain that cell lines get corrupted over time by genetic mutations; the available ones were all cultivated using animal feeder cells, which limits potential use for humans. In addition, researchers want to be able to work with lines containing genes for specific diseases.

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Posted in Policy, Biology