Senate hopefuls differ on cell bill

Bush veto raises questions on views of Md. candidates


President Bush's veto yesterday of a bill to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and the question over whether Congress will find the votes to override, raises the issue's profile anew in Maryland's U.S. Senate contest.

The leading Republican and Democratic candidates for Maryland's open Senate seat differ on the matter, and, if elected, their views could help determine whether a similar proposal could become law in the future.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican running for the Senate, told a reporter from another publication yesterday that he would not answer hypothetical questions about how he would have voted on the bill, which passed the House and Senate by significant margins and with bipartisan support.

After an event in Baltimore, Steele - a pro-life Catholic - said he supports research using adult and cord blood stem cells. Steele said he favors research seeking to extract stem cells without destroying embryos.

Many Democrats vying for the party's nomination renewed their call yesterday for additional federal funds for embryonic stem cell research and lobbied for a veto override. Some also criticized Steele for not making his position on the legislation plain for voters.

"What is frustrating is that Michael Steele clearly supports the president's veto, and he won't say it," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who is running for Senate and voted for the stem cell bill. "Elections are about telling people where you stand. ... He has a responsibility to answer questions."

After Steele's morning event, during which he released a plan to help Maryland's vulnerable communities overcome gang violence, drugs and violent crime, the lieutenant governor would not answer questions from a Sun reporter. His campaign did not reply to a request for comment.

Many scientists say that embryonic stem cells, which can take on the properties of various cells throughout the body, could provide treatments and cures for debilitating diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Religious conservatives liken the destruction of human embryos to murder, even if the embryos used for research would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics.

In vetoing the bill yesterday, Bush said he would not "support the taking of innocent human life." The proposal would have lifted restrictions that the president set in 2001 limiting the use of federal funds for research on previously existing embryonic stem cell lines.

A majority of Marylanders approve of the use of public money for such research. A Sun poll conducted late last year found that 60 percent supported it, 27 percent were opposed and 13 percent were undecided.

Steele has taken conflicting positions on the issue. In February, he angered an audience of Baltimore Jewish leaders when he compared embryonic stem cell research to Nazi medical experiments. In a subsequent radio apology, he said he supported embryonic stem cell research but cautioned that "some bioethic, moral compass" should guide the work. A few weeks later, he told an audience of Catholics that embryonic stem cell research is "a slippery slope," and added that "any experimentation, any cloning or any efforts to destroy that embryo is destroying life."

Former Democratic congressman and past NAACP president Kweisi Mfume said he would have voted for the bill that Bush vetoed. Mfume said he does not understand how a candidate for Senate "can refuse to answer any question dealing with issues on votes in the Senate."

"With proper ethical restraints, we clearly need to provide doctors and scientists with the ability to help us alleviate these debilitating conditions," Mfume said.

Allan J. Lichtman, a history professor seeking the Democratic nomination, said that as a cancer survivor, he, too, would have backed the bill.

"I deplore a presidential veto that panders to his right-wing base and undermines knowledge and medical care in the U.S.," he said.

Dennis F. Rasmussen, formerly a state delegate, state senator and Baltimore County executive, said his Christian faith dictates that limits should be imposed on the use of federal money for research.

"I don't support creating embryos just for scientific research," he said.

A spokeswoman for Potomac businessman Josh Rales, another Democratic candidate, could not be reached for comment.

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