A chance for achievement

July 12, 2006

The 109th Congress, now rounding the far turn before heading into its final stretch, has been notable for voting on issues simply for effect without any expectation or urgency that they become law.

Proposed constitutional issues on flag-burning and gay marriage considered by the Senate fall into this category. So, too, do House plans to soon take up measures that would prohibit the government from confiscating guns during emergencies and protect the Pledge of Allegiance from being declared unconstitutional for its "under God" phrase.

Thus, it is a particular pleasure to see blooming in this wasteland of posturing the prospect that Congress might finally enact legislation to ease President Bush's 2001 too-tight restrictions limiting federally financed research on embryonic stem cells.

If Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist brings up a House-passed stem cell bill next week, as expected, head counts suggest lawmakers will have a genuine accomplishment to their credit when they go home in August to campaign.

Mr. Bush has threatened to veto the measure. But maybe he'll finally see the political wisdom of advancing a relatively modest compromise that has very strong popular support and the backing of even some staunch Republican conservatives.

Under a deal Mr. Frist struck with Senate Democratic leaders, three related bills will come up for debate as a package. All need a filibuster-proof majority of 60; all must pass or the package fails. Most important is the House measure allowing federally backed research on embryonic stem cells donated by in vitro fertilization patients. Two other proposals would encourage federal spending on research aimed at producing stem cells with the same adaptive qualities as embryonic stem cells without destroying an embryo, and prohibit commercial trade in tissues from fetuses created for research purposes.

Some dispute whether a large quantity of stem cells would become available from in vitro donations. But the source seems indisputably appropriate - a gift that may relieve or even cure debilitating ailments such as diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease from tissue that would otherwise be discarded.

If this package, and only this package, wins enactment this month, these few weeks will nonetheless rank among the most productive of this Congress.

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