Veto highlights power, limits

Bush has first need to employ his weapon of last resort as his sway diminishes

July 20, 2006|By JANET HOOK | JANET HOOK,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, swiftly defying a bipartisan majority in Congress and a strong current in public opinion, exercised the first veto of his presidency yesterday by blocking an expansion of federal support for embryonic stem cell research that he considers immoral.

Within hours of Bush's announcement, a House effort to override the veto fell 51 votes short of the required two-thirds majority, effectively killing the bill for the rest of the year. The vote was 235 for the override and 193 opposed, with 51 Republicans siding against Bush.

The president said the veto was not a setback for science but a victory of conscience, as taxpayers should not pay for research that destroys human embryos - even in the service of obtaining stem cells from those embryos to develop potential cures for disease.

"This bill would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others," Bush said to a crowd of supporters in the White House East Room, including many children born of fertility-clinic embryos of the sort that would have been used for research under the bill. "It crosses a moral boundary that our society needs to respect, so I vetoed it."

The bill Bush vetoed would have eased restrictions that he imposed in 2001 on federally funded embryonic stem cell research. Supporters of looser rules decried the veto, saying it had dashed the hopes of American scientists, patients and their families.

"Vetoing this bill is one of the greatest mistakes of his presidency," said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat.

The veto, and Congress' failure to override it, were landmark moments in Bush's presidency that testified to the extent and limits of his sway halfway through his second term. Rampant Republican defections on the issue underscored the weakening hold Bush has on his party.

But even a president in his final years holds veto power, which allowed Bush at one stroke to leave an enormous mark on American science and research ethics, shaping the flow of federal dollars that are a cornerstone of U.S. science.

The most remarkable thing about Bush's decision might not be that he vetoed this particular bill, as he had repeatedly threatened to do. More significant might be that it took so long in his presidency before he vetoed anything.

Every president since James A. Garfield has issued at least one veto, and he was shot dead after less than a year in office, in 1881. Thomas Jefferson was the only two-term president to issue no vetoes.

Many Republicans say Bush's extraordinarily long veto-free period is a tribute to how far the Republican-controlled Congress has gone to accommodate what Bush wanted - authorizing the war in Iraq, giving him almost every tax cut he wanted, meeting his overall budget targets.

But many conservatives say it is also a sign of how unwilling Bush has been to confront Congress on its big-spending ways.

Bush's uncompromising defense of his 2001 stem cell policy, despite changes in the scientific and political landscape over the past five years, is in keeping with a presidential leadership style that his admirers call principled and his detractors call bullheaded.

"It reaffirms a dimension of his political self-definition as a strong leader who does what he says he'll do and sticks with his guns," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University in Texas and long-time Bush-watcher.

The veto came with remarkable alacrity, less than 24 hours after the Senate cleared the bill with a bipartisan 63-37 vote. The speedy action, and the quick House vote that followed, were signs of Republican eagerness to get the divisive issue off center-stage.

All but one of Maryland's eight House members voted to override Bush's veto, including all six Democrats: Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin, Elijah E. Cummings, Steny H. Hoyer, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Chris Van Hollen and Albert R. Wynn. The state's two Republicans split - Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest voted to override the veto, while Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett voted to sustain it.

Even as he vetoed the bill, Bush also signed a bill passed unanimously by both the House and Senate to address the fears of some critics that scientists are aiming to create "fetal farms," in which human fetuses would be grown for their organs and tissues. That bill would make it illegal to perform experiments on fetuses grown in wombs for research purposes. Proponents of the bill acknowledged that the bill was pre-emptive, because the procedure is not known to have been practiced on human fetuses.

Controversy has centered on a kind of stem cell research that is progressing rapidly around the world, but only narrowly funded by the U.S. government. It entails destroying human embryos to obtain the stem cells inside, which are thought to be able to develop into any type of tissue in the body.

Janet Hook writes for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.

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