WASHINGTON -- The House approved legislation yesterday that would overturn a federal ban on fetal tissue research -- but in a politically significant victory for the Bush administration, the vote fell short of the number needed to override an almost certain presidential veto.
While many supporters were absent for the vote, opponents -- who object to the research because it involves tissue obtained through abortions -- attracted three more votes than the one-third needed to sustain a veto. The final tally was 260-148.
Members are not bound to vote the same way in an override attempt, but yesterday's vote was considered a critical test of the legislation's ability to survive.
"This is a clear-cut victory. And when it comes to an override, I think we'll be even stronger," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican who is an ardent abortion foe and one of the legislation's chief opponents.
Supporters of the legislation vowed to continue efforts to change lawmakers' minds, but they were pessimistic about their chances for success.
"It's up to the president," said the bill's author, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat. "I hope he will think about all those people with Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes and other illnesses before he makes up his mind."
The Senate is expected to act on the bill next week, where passage also is virtually assured. But President Bush, leaving the White House on a political trip to Arizona and California, nodded when asked if he would veto the measure.
Thus far, Congress has failed to override any of Mr. Bush's 28 vetoes.
The controversial provision, part of a bill to reauthorize National Institutes of Health (NIH) programs, would allow the resumption of research using fetal tissue from abortions. Medical researchers believe such work ultimately could benefit patients with Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, Huntington's disease, spinal cord injuries and other conditions.
Fetal tissue is especially adaptive to transplantation, and scientists hope that transplanted fetal cells will take over the functions of cells that have been destroyed or damaged.
The legislation, which provides $7.3 billion for NIH, has enjoyed widespread bipartisan support on Capitol Hill -- including that of numerous representatives and senators who consider themselves abortion opponents but view the legislation as life-affirming.
Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican and an abortion foe who worked vigorously for the legislation's passage, said he doubted that anyone who opposed the bill could now be persuaded to support an override effort.
The provision's supporters were frustrated in their efforts to gain enough votes for a potential override after the White House announced that it would order the establishment of a national tissue bank and registry to store tissue from ectopic pregnancies and miscarriages for research purposes. The White House had offered the proposal in the hope that wavering representatives would view it as an ethically acceptable alternative to the use of tissue from elective abortions.
Opponents seized upon the proposal as ammunition to defeat the bill, while supporters brought forth numerous researchers who insisted that the bank would never work because the majority of such tissue has genetic abnormalities and other flaws, and is, therefore, unusable.
But in the final days before the vote, the bank proposal gained the key support of NIH Director Bernadine Healy. In a letter cited by the bill's opponents, Dr. Healy vowed that she would make every effort to make the bank work and urged that it be given a one-year trial.
The controversial ban has been the subject of intense public debate since it was imposed by the Reagan administration in April 1988.
Opponents of abortion have maintained that fetal tissue obtained from what they believe is an "immoral" procedure is tainted and should not be used, no matter how life-saving it may prove.
They also contend that such research will only encourage more women to undergo abortions. But the legislation contains numerous safeguards to prevent this, including one provision that explicitly forbids "directed donation" of such tissue to anyone, including relatives.