Senate compromises on stem cell issues

Amended proposal ends filibuster

bill is likely to advance

General Assembly

March 09, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA | JENNIFER SKALKA,SUN REPORTER

A weakened proposal to authorize using state funds for stem cell research looks poised to pass the Senate today, posing a potential challenge for Democratic leaders as they try to marry the Senate bill, which doesn't require annual funding for research, with a House proposal that commits $25 million yearly.

In a conciliatory move aimed at breaking a short-lived filibuster led by Republicans, the Senate bill was amended yesterday to wipe out language that gave priority to embryonic stem cell research and to include naming two religious leaders chosen by the governor to a commission that evaluates funding requests. Opponents of using embryonic stem cells say using them for research destroys human life.

The annual funding was stripped earlier in committee.

"This is a baby step toward much greater projects in the future," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who predicted easy passage today.

But House Speaker Michael E. Busch expressed disappointment in the Senate version, saying he didn't know if the bills would wind up in conference committee, where a compromise version could be hashed out, or if House leaders would be willing to take up the Senate bill.

"We're going to look at it, assess it, but obviously those who were hopeful of having an embryonic stem cell bill that would set the standards ... are going to be somewhat disappointed," Busch said.

Senators have said they think it would be tough to get the House bill, which passed last week and favors embryonic stem cell research, through their chamber, a move that would prevent the need for a conference committee.

To break the filibuster, they had to accommodate amendments proposed by Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a St. Mary's County Democrat. Those amendments made the bills even more dissimilar.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who made an appearance in the Senate gallery during yesterday's filibuster, said he doesn't believe legislation is necessary. He told reporters that he prefers his budget proposal, which would commit $20 million to research but doesn't provide a structure for how the money would be allocated, leaving those decisions to a quasi-state technology group.

"It's by its very nature nonpolitical and nonphilosophical," Ehrlich said of his plan. "The monies will go where the scientists lead those monies."

Ehrlich wouldn't say if he'd veto the Senate's latest version of the bill or the one passed by the House.

Yesterday's GOP-led filibuster lasted about six hours. Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, led the way with a nearly 90-minute monologue about the bill's flaws. With a developmental biology textbook in front of him, Harris, a physician, spoke at length about the differences between mitochondrial and nuclear DNA. Dolly the cloned sheep earned numerous mentions, as did the Korean stem cell research scandal.

Harris, who repeatedly called the bill a "red-haired Eskimo," said he especially disliked a wording change approved in committee, replacing "embryo" with "material."

"If we mean human embryo, why don't we just say it?" Harris said.

After Harris, Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, said he isn't sold on embryonic stem cell research, which some researchers believe - because of the ability of those cells to take on the properties of many of the body's other cells - could help find cures for debilitating diseases. "We are offering people hope, but I am afraid it's false hope," Stone said.

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican who spoke about her mother's battle with Parkinson's, said she thinks adult stem cell research, which has garnered support among conservatives because it doesn't require the destruction of a human embryo, is more promising. She said that any hope attached to embryonic stem cell research is "completely displaced."

"There wouldn't be a person on this floor objecting if we were looking at that," Jacobs said.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, the Democratic sponsor of the Senate bill, urged her colleagues to support embryonic stem cell research because President Bush has limited funding for it at the federal level. She told them that Maryland's scientists will leave for states such as California and New Jersey where state money has been committed for research. And she advised them to think beyond what's already known about embryonic stem cell research - to remember that there was no polio vaccine without the work of Jonas Salk and that groundbreaking research takes time and money.

"This is a bill about saving lives," Hollinger said. "This is a bill about hope."

The filibuster continued through two attempts to cut if off - both of which failed by one vote. On the third vote, Dyson flipped, allowing him and others to introduce amendments.

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