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CQ Today: With Obama Reversal of Stem Cell Policy, Democrats Look to Expand Funding


By Alex Wayne

Key Democrats in Congress plan to try to pass legislation to expand government funding for embryonic stem cell research, in an attempt to cement into law a policy President Obama established on Monday.

Obama signed an executive order lifting former President George W. Bush's restrictions on funding the research.

Under the new policy, the National Institutes of Health is to write guidelines within 120 days on the funding of embryonic stem cell research, after which scientists could begin applying for grants from the agency to support work using cells from a broader range of sources. NIH's rules are to include language requiring assurances that people are not paid to donate eggs or embryos for research.

Embryonic stem cells have for a decade been known more for their controversy than for their scientific promise. The cells can be made to develop into any kind of tissue in the body -- a property known as pluripotency -- and are thus seen as a potential miracle cure for a range of diseases and conditions, including spinal cord injuries, diabetes and some cancers. But embryos must be destroyed in order to harvest the cells, a procedure that religious conservatives liken to abortion and consider murder.

Bush's policy, issued Aug. 9, 2001, restricted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to 21 cell lines derived before that date. Bush called his order a compromise between the two sides. But it pleased almost no one; ever since, many scientists have complained that the restrictions stymied work in the field, while conservatives foresaw a future president reversing Bush's policy with the stroke of a pen, as Obama did Monday.

Democrats hope to tilt the debate even further toward the scientists' argument. Bush twice vetoed bills that would have overruled his 2001 order and made federal funding widely available for embryonic stem cell research. Supporters did not have the votes to override him.

Even though Obama's executive order effectively nullifies Bush's policies, supporters of the research in Congress want to again pass the legislation that Bush vetoed, to write Obama's policy into law and prevent a future president from overturning it.

“I want to pass legislation as quickly as possible to codify this so it doesn't become a ping-pong ball going back and forth between administrations,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., who sponsored or co-sponsored the bills that Bush vetoed. She said in a conference call with reporters that she would ask Democratic leaders Monday to pass new legislation (HR 873) that is very similar to the bill Bush vetoed.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., indicated that DeGette won't have to press her case very hard.

“If we have a scientific opportunity to treat and cure disease, we have a moral opportunity to support it,” Pelosi said in a statement. “That is why Congress will move to pass legislation to make this executive order the law of the land.”

Senate a Rockier Road

But the Senate may present an obstacle. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D Nev., never tried to override Bush's veto of an embryonic stem cell bill in the 110th Congress because he didn't have enough votes. Republican opponents of the research could still at least slow a bill in this Congress, forcing Reid to expend several days of floor time on the measure.

“We want to pass the embryonic stem cell bill, but the only way that will happen is if we can be assured there won't be any amendments,” said Kate Cyrul, spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, sponsor of the Senate version of DeGette's legislation.

However, Harkin also chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Department of Health and Human Services, and he could seek to attach the legislation to the department's fiscal 2010 spending bill. Of that option, Cyrul said, “We're a long way from making a decision.”

Dickey-Wicker May Be Revisited

Democrats may also address a closely related issue: current law prohibits federal funding for research that destroys human embryos. That law, a 1996 amendment to the HHS spending bill known as Dickey-Wicker for its sponsors, prevents the government from funding the actual creation of embryonic stem cell lines, although it does not prevent government funding for research related to those lines once they are created.

But Democrats are approaching any changes to Dickey-Wicker cautiously, as it is potentially an even more explosive flash point than embryonic stem cell research. The National Right to Life Committee on Monday warned against any changes to the amendment, raising the specter of a future in which human embryos are purposely created for research.

“Any member of Congress who votes for legislation to repeal this law is voting to allow federal funding of human embryo farms, created through the use of human cloning,” said Douglas Johnson, a spokesman for the group.

DeGette said that her priority is simply to codify Obama's executive order by passing her bill. But she and her chief Republican ally on the issue, Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware, said that Dickey-Wicker should be reconsidered.

“Certainly, the Dickey-Wicker amendment . . . is something we need to look at,” Castle said. “That was passed in 1996, before we realized the full potential of embryonic stem cell research. Some researchers are telling us now that that needs to be reversed.”

He added that the amendment might also prevent some research into in vitro fertilization.

Conservative Republicans blasted Obama's executive order, arguing that there is no need for embryonic stem cell research because of advances in work using stem cells extracted harmlessly from adults and from amniotic fluid. Some adult stem cells have even been reprogrammed to behave almost like embryonic stem cells, and therapies using adult stem cells are at a much more advanced stage of development than embryonic stem cells.

“At a time when highly significant -- even historic -- breakthroughs in adult stem cell research have become almost daily occurrences . . . President Obama has chosen to turn back the clock and, starting today, will force taxpayers to subsidize the unethical over the ethical, the unworkable over what works, and hype and hyperbole over hope,” said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J.

But many scientists in the field say that adult stem cells aren't truly pluripotent and that research with both adult and embryonic cells should be funded.