Stem cell research supporters in Congress are hoping to take quick action to reverse the research ban imposed by U.S. District Court Judge Royce
Lamberth on Monday. They expect to take up the issue when Congress returns from recess on 13 September. The question is how: by passing a new law, or
by modifying Dickey-Wicker, a 14-year-old law banning federal research that destroys embryos. Either way, with House of Representatives and Senate
Democratic leadership so far silent on the issue, it’s unclear how far their efforts will get less than 2 months before elections in November.
A bill introduced earlier this year by representatives Diana DeGette (D–CO) and Michael Castle (R–DE) would codify President Barack Obama's March 2009
executive order expanding federal research on human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). The proposal has broad support: twice in recent years, Congress
passed a similar bill that was vetoed by then-president Bush.
Lawmakers can't just pass the DeGette bill, HR 4808, however, because
according to the rationale in Lamberth's ruling, it conflicts with the Dickey-Wicker amendment.
Instead, Congress could eliminate the Dickey-Wicker rule, which each year since 1996 has
been passed as part of the appropriations bill funding the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Or it could modify the rule to allow for hESC research;
or change the DeGette bill so it's consistent with Dickey-Wicker. DeGette said this week that lawyers are figuring out what do. "We will
find a way to fix this," a House Democratic aide told ScienceInsider.
The aide says DeGette is confident she can gather enough support during the 3 weeks before the House breaks again for the fall election, even though
initial speculation was that candidates would want to avoid the hot-button stem cell issue. At least one Democrat running for reelection has expressed concern about the ban
(Representative Ed Perlmutter (CO)). And in Illinois, Republican Representative Mark Kirk (IL), who is running for the Senate, issued a statement this week supporting the DeGette bill.
On the Senate side, Tom Harkin (D–IA) announced earlier this week that he will hold a hearing 16 September on stem cell legislation as chair of the
House appropriations subcommittee that approves NIH's budget.
"In a lot of ways, Dickey-Wicker is the third rail" of politics--politically untouchable, says one biomedical research lobbyist. On the other hand, he
added, mixing metaphors, the period before the election may be a good time to change it and "strike while the iron is hot."
See our complete coverage of this issue.