Stem-cell bill could be pivotal for Bush

He has vowed to veto additional funding


WASHINGTON -- Long-disputed legislation to fund additional embryonic stem-cell research could be revived in coming months, presenting President Bush with another political headache as he confronts a series of crises.

Bush has promised to use the first veto of his presidency to prevent any such bill from becoming law. But stem cell research, with its potential promise for finding cures for debilitating diseases, has broad public support, despite opposition from many evangelical Christians. And Bush is already suffering the lowest approval ratings of his presidency.

Renewed attention to the stem cell issue could shore up Bush's support among conservatives upset by his nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court. But it could remind centrist voters that Bush is at odds with them on a key issue, analysts say.

"Voters see great promise in breakthrough research into cures of major diseases," said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University. "If he vetoes, he is running the risk of alienating a big portion of the electorate. It makes him look out of touch."

The lack of compromise between Bush and stem cell research supporters reflects the divisive nature of the issue, said Stephen Hess, a political science professor at George Washington University.

"By never having used a veto, either everything has gone his way - which is never true in this world - or he's been able to reach an agreement," Hess said. "When politics gets into this range of right and wrong, religion and morality, it is increasingly difficult to compromise."

Supporters say the process of cultivating embryonic stem cells into various kinds of adult cells has the potential to cure some cancers, diabetes and Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. But opponents say the use of embryos in this way is immoral, and they insist that promising alternatives exist.

In one of the first high-profile moves of his presidency, Bush in August 2001 announced a compromise policy of funding existing stem-cell lines but not new ones. In the intervening four years, scientists have increasingly concluded that those existing lines are insufficient, and support has grown for revisiting the policy.

The Senate, which was planning to vote on a bill to relax the funding restrictions when Hurricane Katrina hit, is again looking at the bill. The House - with 50 Republicans joining in - passed its version in May.

A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said a vote might be pushed to early next year. But others say it could happen earlier.

The legislation would allow federal funding to be used to study embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization, which, supporters say, would be discarded anyway.

Lobbyists for embryonic stem-cell research hope a compromise acceptable to Bush is still possible.

"Hopefully a bill could be put together that expands the policy but doesn't violate the president's ethical boundaries," said Larry Soler, vice president for government relations at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. "But we're not moving as quickly as we could."

Steve Ivey writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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