The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly today to expand the number of human embryonic stem cell (ES) lines available to federally funded researchers. The bill, designated H.R. 3 and considered a top priority in the new Democrat-controlled Congress, passed 253 to 174. That represents a jump in support from May 2005 when the same bill passed by 238 to 194. But it still falls more than 30 votes short of the two-thirds needed to override a presidential veto.
With the Senate expected to vote on the same measure next month, the stage is set for a replay of the veto dealt by President George W. Bush last July (ScienceNOW, 19 July 2006). The White House has rebuffed attempts by the bill's sponsors to meet with the president, and it's fighting hard to cast the debate in its own terms. This week, the White House Domestic Policy Council issued a new report to promote methods of getting stem cells that don't harm embryos, such as reprogramming adult cells. Officials also hinted that a presidential executive order for the same purpose may be forthcoming.
The stem cell wars heated up this week when scientists at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, reported in Nature Biotechnology that stem cells found in human amniotic fluid have many of the same qualities as ES cells. A number of scientists, including lead author Anthony Atala, were quick to emphasize that such cells are no substitute for ES cells. Nonetheless opponents of H.R. 3 eagerly seized on the report as further evidence that alternative, less controversial cell types will fill all medical needs.
The focus of the debate now turns to the Senate, which passed the same bill (now labeled S. 5) in the last Congress by a vote of 63 to 37. Many estimates now put the count at 66--one vote short of a veto override. But the bill's advocates think there might be a chance of avoiding a veto, because Senate rules will allow for amendments. Certain changes could make the bill more palatable to the president--such as adding provisions for more ethical oversight, a program to promote embryo adoption, or even a new, later, deadline for cells that are eligible for federal funding (currently, cells have to have been derived by 9 August 2001 to qualify).
Still, another veto is likely in the works. But stem cell advocates are convinced that public opinion is increasingly on their side, and it's only a matter of time before they get their way. "This is an issue that will not go away," said one of the bill's sponsors, Representative Diana DeGette (D-Colorado). Until it becomes law, "we intend to introduce it over and over again."