Stem Cell Politics

The White House was poised last Tuesday to make the best of a bad political situation. While President Bush would cast his first veto on a popular embryonic stem cell research bill, the political sting was supposed to be diminished by him simultaneously signing an alternative measure. But that scenario was ruined when the second bill was defeated in the House.

The president’s aides were stunned. The bill directing the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to pursue research that would not kill human embryos, as the vetoed bill would, passed the Senate Tuesday, 100 to 0, and there was no warning of failure in the House. So, instead of the contemplated signing ceremony Wednesday, Bush directed the NIH to proceed with research anyway — an indication the defeated legislation was not needed.

Last week’s convoluted congressional developments, though raising questions of life, death, morality and religion, reflected election-year politics. Seasoned Democratic political operatives regard stem cell research as the most important issue affecting the 2006 elections. They believe Bush’s sustained veto will alienate normally Republican voters in swing congressional districts, winning Democrats control of the House. The president’s aides, while disagreeing with this analysis, planned to mitigate the political fallout by what amounted to a simultaneous sign-and-veto ceremony.

Why, then, would the usually partisan Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid go along with the Republican plan? Because it is extremely difficult to get anything done in the Senate, and Reid was willing to pass what he described as a meaningless bill to avoid obstruction and filibuster on the major measure.

But Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, lead Democrat on stem cell research, recommended that the alternative bill be opposed as a diversion. Even so, a clear majority of the House favored it. The killer was opposition by Rep. Michael Castle, Delaware’s only House member, who leads the liberal faction of moderate Republicans (mostly from the Northeast). While small in number, Castle’s followers frequently represent the House’s balance of power.

Such was the case last week. If the alternative bill (sponsored by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland) went through the regular procedure, it would be subject to a "recommittal motion" by Castle just before passage attempting to combine it with the Castle-DeGette bill originally passed by the House. That version surely would pass. So, Republican leaders avoided this disaster by trying to pass the Bartlett bill under a procedure that barred amendments but required a two-thirds vote.

The result was mass confusion on the House floor. The Republican whip operation was inactive, regarding the bill as a "conscience vote" (as abortion measures are). Democrats similarly were freed of the party lash, with 58 voting for the bill. Many members of both parties seemed confused by a procedure often used to commemorate routine anniversaries. It fell 13 votes short of the 186 (two-thirds of those present) needed for passage. Conservative Rep. John Linder of Georgia later said he was mixed up and voted no when he should have voted yes.

The bill would have passed save for the defection of 15 Republicans, including Linder. He was one of four Republicans who also voted against Castle-DeGette. The other three — Jeff Flake of Arizona, John Hostettler of Indiana and Ron Paul of Texas — based their votes on conservative/libertarian principles. Eleven Republicans who voted for Castle-DeGette and against Bartlett consisted of Castle and like-minded moderates. In their ranks were three members from Connecticut — Nancy Johnson, Christopher Shays and Rob Simmons — who are targeted by the Democratic campaign to take over the House.

The Republican high command went into panic mode Wednesday. There was talk about putting the bill through the regular order, but Castle’s threatened recommittal had not disappeared. The president was urged to issue an executive order, but his brief Wednesday statement served much the same purpose without raising rancor. Unfortunately, it also missed the original goal of a publicly proclaimed alternative.

While advocates contend that the alternative approach actually offers better prospects for quick progress against disease, scientific arguments were lost amid the political give-and-take last week. George W. Bush cast his first veto on moral and theological grounds, but fell short of mitigating the political impact by not getting an alternative approach through Congress.