Despite Senate Victory, Stem Cell Prospects ‘Bleak’
New York Jewish Week
Passage in House seen unlikely, and a presidential veto looms.
James D. Besser – Washington Correspondent
A broad coalition of Jewish groups applauded last week’s Senate passage of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which would open the door to federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. But statements praising the Senate action barely concealed a deep gloom. Senate sponsors, while winning a majority, could not muster a veto-proof margin.
Things will be even tougher in the House, several leading Jewish activists said – and a presidential veto looms.
“President Bush has made his position on this very clear; it’s not something he’s going to change on a whim,” said Nathan Diament, public policy director for the Orthodox Union, which supports expanded stem cell research – unlike most groups on the Christian right, which link the process of obtaining stem cells to abortion.
Bush’s opposition, he said, has left Jewish groups with “not a lot of options. We tried to help get a veto-proof majority in the Senate, but that was not to be. Candidly, I don’t think there’s much point in trying to get the House to that point; they’re too far away.”
Diament said his group will support several less sweeping stem cell bills that stand a better chance of passage, including a measure sponsored by Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) that would encourage federal officials to acquire stem cells from embryos that have “died naturally,” according to Isakson.
That measure also passed the Senate last week, but many scientists say it doesn’t permit the kind of research with the greatest potential to spur medical breakthroughs.
Hadassah, which has made renewed stem cell funding a top priority, also applauded the Senate action. In a statement, the group’s president, June Walker, said that new federal funding would “dramatically increase the number of stem cell lines available for research and exponentially increase the potential of finding cures and treatment for intractable and debilitating diseases, like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and multiple sclerosis.”
But Hadassah activists, too, expressed grave doubts about the bill’s future as it moves to the House.
The Senate action is “really good news, but it’s capped; there’s not a lot we can do about a veto,” said Shelly Klein, the group’s advocacy director. “We worked really hard to line up more votes [in the Senate], but it looks like it just won’t happen.”
It will be even harder in the House, she said. “So we are where we were last year, with not quite enough votes to override a veto,” she said.
A big part of the problem is that the stem cell debate “is still caught up in the whole debate over abortion,” Klein said. “We’ve tried really hard to distinguish between the two issues, and we’ve made some progress, but there hasn’t been enough.”
The new Democratic leadership in Congress, she said, has made a stem cell bill a “top priority,” but some key targets of pro-stem cell activists, including Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), a freshman senator who opposes abortion rights, “have not been willing to move.”
Klein said the apparent stalemate at the federal level will force Hadassah and other groups to focus more on legislation at the state level. Recently New York passed a pioneering stem cell law that will provide up to $600 million in stem cell research funding over 11 years. A number of other states have stem cell legislation in the works.
Klein praised the New York action but said that with state programs “you’re not talking about the kind of money the federal government could provide. And you’re talking about a patchwork of funding, with no coordination. The federal prohibition still has a chilling impact on this kind of research. So it’s still a bleak situation.”