U.S. Senate to okay expanded stem cell bill?
Senators will likely approve use of federal funding for newly derived lines, putting the ball in the President's court
The full U.S. Senate has agreed to vote this month on a package of three bills relating to human embryonic stem cells (hESC), including controversial legislation that would expand Federal research funding for newly derived cell lines. That measure and two less-contentious bills are all likely to pass, according to congressional and scientific sources, forcing President Bush to decide whether or not to veto the main bill, as he has promised.
The long-sought voting agreement
, reached June 29, was brokered
by Senate Majority leader Bill Frist (R- Tenn.), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.). The main bill, the "Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005" (HR 810
), would expand Federal research funding to hESC lines regardless of when they were derived.
Current Federal hESC funding is limited
to 22 cell lines from an approved list
of 78 that were derived before Aug. 9, 2001, when Bush announced the policy
-- his first executive order. Scientists have long complained
that these cell lines have limited usefulness. Should Bush veto HR 810, it would be his first veto.
The House passed
HR 810 in May 2005. Facing opposition from some fellow conservatives, Frist had been working for months to assemble a package of competing bills, so the senators could debate various bills simultaneously. Twelve hours of debate will be divided among the three bills, each of which will be voted on separately. Each bill needs at least 60 votes to pass.
The second bill
in the package, the "Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act" by Specter and Sen. Rick Santorum
(R-Penn.), would direct the National Institutes of Health to support ways of deriving hESC without destroying human embryos. The third measure
would prohibit trafficking fetal tissue "gestated for research purposes."
"There are no inherent conflicts among the three bills," said Tony Mazzaschi, senior associate vice president of the Association of American Medical Colleges
(AAMC). The main bill (HR 810) is clearly the most important, he said. "The other two bills are typical 'Inside the Beltway' fig leaves that give people the opportunity to say they voted on behalf of a stem cell bill," he told The Scientist
Santorum and Specter's alternative stem cell bill, for instance, doesn't change existing Federal policy. "The NIH is already in a position to support research on alternative methods for deriving stem cells in animal model systems," James Battey, chairman of the agency's Stem Cell Task Force
, told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on June 27. The fetus farming bill "doesn't have a lot of relevance," Mazzaschi said. "No one is expecting there to be fetal farms."
At least 60 senators are prepared to vote for all three bills, the sources say, which would enable them all to pass. "Senator Hatch is a strong advocate for all different forms of stem cell research," said spokesman Peter Carr. "He doesn't believe in putting all your eggs in one basket, saying there is only one way you can do stem cell research. It is not a problem for him if all three bills pass," Carr told The Scientist
While no specific date has been set, Frist wants to bring the three bills to the Senate floor for a series of "up or down" votes before the end of July, spokesperson Carolyn Weyforth told The Scientist
If the President does veto the bill, it would first be sent back to the House, where it originated, for an override vote. Success there is unlikely, since the measure passed by 238 to 194 in May 2005 -- 52 votes fewer than the two-thirds needed to override.
Links within this article
"Unanimous consent agreement"
T. Agres, "Prospects murky for US stem cell funding," The Scientist
, June 8, 2006.
Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 (HR 810)
K. Pallarito, "NIH stem cell chief resigns," The Scientist
, April 21, 2006.
NIH Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry
The President Discusses Stem Cell Research, August 9, 2001.
A.Harding, "US stem cell rules loosening?" The Scientist
, May 20, 2004.
A.McCook, "US House votes to expand stem cell work," The Scientist
, May 25, 2005.
Alternative Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies Enhancement Act (S 2754)
T. Agres, "Scientist scolded for supporting Santorum," The Scientist
, June 21, 2006.
Fetus Farming Prohibition Act of 2006 (S 3504)
Association of American Medical Colleges
NIH Stem Cell Task Force