Legislators try to strike a delicate balance in stem cell bill language


The members of a House of Delegates committee pored over the pages of a sensitive embryonic stem cell research bill last week, carefully scrutinizing every provision. They moved cautiously and with reservation, aware that they were entering an unfamiliar terrain for lawmakers: science.

The only example they could invoke -- California, where a $3 billion fund for stem cell research was approved by voters last year -- is now mired in politics and lawsuits.

"One of the things we're doing here is a little bit of walking in the dark," Del. John Adams Hurson, chairman of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, told fellow committee members before they approved the amended bill. "It's important for us to think of every single scenario that can be incorporated in this bill," the Montgomery County Democrat added.

As Maryland lawmakers struggle to craft a sound bill that would funnel more than $20 million yearly in state funds to embryonic stem cell research, they are looking to California's problems for guidance on the politics of science.

Hurson's committee looked at such details as the composition of the groups reviewing the grants, ensuring the meetings were open to the public and preventing the possibility of "egg mills" being created by those looking to cash in. The stakes are high this year, as states scramble to pass similar bills, fearful of losing biotechnology companies, and as the issue for some rises to the level of the abortion debate.

"It's a high-profile political issue wherever it pops up in the country," said Ronald Walters, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. "I think for the Republicans it really juices up their base. They're trying to feel around for issues like this that have high saliency."

John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, said religious groups and conservatives are linking "life" issues, such as stem cell research, abortion and the Terri Schiavo case.

"I think the issues feed on each other," he said. "There is a general concern over the definition of life, both in the beginning and in the end. It's all mixed in together -- the moral and philosophical concerns drive the politics."

The Maryland bill has taken several forms, and the House and Senate versions are different. The House committee lowered the proposed annual funding by $2 million, to $23 million, among other changes.

While the House bill made it onto the floor and was preliminarily approved yesterday, the Senate bill still has to clear one committee and faces a potential filibuster on the floor.

House Republicans unsuccessfully offered several amendments to the bill yesterday, hoping for stronger language to prevent the possibility of human cloning. They also wanted to steer money toward research that would have the greatest chance of rapid therapeutic benefit and include adult stem cell research as an option.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican, said that only adult stem cells have shown to produce results scientists are hoping for.

"If we are going to spend the state's money, why spend it on something that is not going to work?" Smigiel said.

But Hurson countered that the federal government allows funding for adult stem cell research, making state action unnecessary.

The GOP amendments failed in votes that followed party lines. A final vote on the bill is expected tomorrow.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has yet to take a position on the issue, a silence that some question.

Two of Ehrlich's departments -- Budget and Management, and Business and Economic Development -- are opposed to the funding source, money from the state's cigarette restitution fund.

But a national group Ehrlich belongs to, the Republican Main Street Partnership, lists embryonic stem cell research as its top legislative issue. Ehrlich is one of five Republican governors listed as an elected member.

Also, as a congressman, Ehrlich was co-chairman of the Congressional Biotechnology Caucus and is a strong supporter of expanding the state's biotechnology industry, which supporters of the bill frequently note.

Ehrlich has said he supports the federal position on embryonic stem cell research, which limits funding to stem cell lines that existed in 2001.

"He does believe the venue question is an important one, whether this is an issue best dealt with on the state or federal level," said Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman. "So that is an issue that he is reviewing and will continue to review if the bill reaches his desk."

If a bill does land on his desk and Ehrlich is forced to make a decision, it could be the closest he has come to taking a firm stance on an abortion-related issue, said Matthew A. Crenson, chairman of the political science department at the Johns Hopkins University. "This presents him with a very closely related issue," said Crenson. "It's part of the same sort of constellation of issues."

In the meantime, supporters and opponents of the bill plow ahead with their lobbying campaigns.

The opponents' position did not change, even after its sponsors -- Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg and Sen. Paula C. Hollinger -- agreed to an amendment that would prohibit funding studies on embryos created for research. Now the bill would only give grants to research using embryos that exist as a byproduct of in-vitro fertilization. But the Maryland Catholic Conference and groups continue to battle against the bill.

A diverse, grass-roots coalition of supporters continues to champion the bill as the greatest hope for cures for dozens of debilitating diseases. The battle is also shaping up in the Senate, where Republicans say they have the 19 votes for a filibuster, a move they intend to take unless the bill is amended to fund only adult stem cell research, a science they believe holds equal or greater promise.

"When you discuss life issues, you get people who are impassioned about it," said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, the minority whip, noting that a number of Democrats are opposed to the bill.

Hollinger said she believes she'll have the 29 votes to break the filibuster.

Even Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller seems wary of the issue. "Again, the issue here is $25 million," Miller said Friday. "This is a national issue," he added, saying he'd rather see it handled on the federal level.

While Hurson's committee used California for guidance in crafting what they believed was a more comprehensive bill, others say it's a good example of the road not to take.

"It's a mess," said Harris. "When you try to pre-empt federal policy and deal with a political issue, you're going to end up in a quagmire. And you're in a quagmire in California."

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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