WASHINGTON - The House voted yesterday to loosen the president's limit on federally funded embryonic stem cell research in a Republican Party split that could pave the way for the first veto of the Bush presidency.
After a day of impassioned pleas and heart-wrenching personal stories from supporters and opponents of the bill, the House voted 238-194 to permit federal funds for research on thousands of surplus embryos in fertility labs. The embryos would be donated by couples who no longer need them.
But supporters fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto President Bush threatened last week.
The House also overwhelmingly passed an alternative bill, offered by Republican leaders, to expand funding for research on stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood instead of embryos.
The sponsors of the embryonic stem cell bill - Reps. Michael N. Castle, a Delaware Republican, and Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat - called the vote a victory for science and for millions of Americans who suffer from ailments such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, juvenile diabetes or spinal cord injury.
"I believe stem cell research is the greatest avenue of hope we have in the long road to a cure for these debilitating diseases," Castle said last night.
But Bush, earlier in the day, said the bill "violates" the policy he set forth four years ago.
Opponents of the bill said last night that they were pleasantly surprised to win as many "no" votes as they did and were confident that they could sustain Bush's veto.
"Today's loss has laid the foundation for tomorrow's victory," said Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican.
The issue of embryonic stem cell research has percolated throughout Bush's presidency, ever since he used his first nationally televised address in August 2001 to announce his decision limiting federally funded research to embryonic stem cell lines that existed at the time - but no new ones.
'A great mistake'
Speaking yesterday in the East Room, where he shared the stage with several parents holding their babies - so-called "snowflake" children who were adopted as frozen embryos - Bush stopped short of reiterating his pledge to veto the legislation. But he said it crosses an ethical line "by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life."
"Crossing this line would be a great mistake," Bush said.
He noted that an embryo adoption agency has matched biological parents with adoptive families, resulting in the birth of 81 children so far. "The children here today remind us that there is no such thing as a spare embryo. Every embryo is unique and genetically complete, like every other human being, and each of us started out our life this way," Bush said.
Without the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto, the vote yesterday was valuable to supporters mostly as a show of broad bipartisan backing. A similar bill in the Senate also has a solid bipartisan base of support - potentially a filibuster-proof majority and leadership by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican who is a staunch abortion foe. It was unclear yesterday when a vote will be scheduled in the Senate.
Supporters hope that if bills are passed in both houses, Bush will consider some sort of compromise.
Advocates of embryonic stem cell research, including much of the scientific community, believe that stem cells taken from embryos show great promise in treating or curing a great range of diseases because they can reproduce into all sorts of cells and tissues.
But because an embryo must be destroyed to obtain the stem cells, opponents, including religious conservatives, view it as the taking of a life, much like their view of abortion.
Voting 'real conscience'
Yesterday's vote came after a day of heated debate on the House floor, much of it emotional pleas from members who cited personal tragedies in their own families or among their constituents. Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri noted that House members were not being pressed by party leaders to vote a certain way as it was a "matter of real conscience."
Proponents said there were roughly 400,000 embryos frozen in fertility labs, a portion of which would be discarded once they were no longer needed by couples and could instead be used for promising, potentially life-saving research.
Republicans supporting the bill included anti-abortion lawmakers such as Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who said he had been "100 percent pro-life" but couldn't deny the promise of embryonic stem cell research to parents of children with diabetes and other diseases. "I don't want another 6-year-old to die," he said, pausing as he choked back tears.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, a quadriplegic since age 16, said embryonic stem cell research offered hope and "a reason to believe" to people such as himself. "I believe one day I will walk again," he said.
Opponents were equally impassioned and dramatic. Rep. Michael C. Burgess, a Texas Republican and doctor of obstetrics, played the sound of a fetal heartbeat over the House speaker system. "This is what it's all about, folks," he said.
Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas said the bill would force taxpayers to finance "the dismemberment of living, distinct human beings" and lead to cloning, genetically engineered children and a black market for human body parts.
"An embryo is a person," DeLay said, standing in front of a photo display of children who had been adopted as embryos. "An embryo is whole, just unfinished, just like the rest of us. These tiny beings, our hearts and minds know, are us."
Support for both bills
Many House members voted for both the embryonic stem cell bill and the alternative measure that would create a bank of umbilical cord blood.
Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican and sponsor of the alternative bill, said stem cells from umbilical cord blood already are being used to treat 65 diseases, including leukemia and sickle cell anemia. And Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican, said that with such research, "you're not killing anyone."
But there is much debate over whether stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood have the same property that makes embryonic stem cells so scientifically valuable.
To date, scientists say, stem cells from umbilical cord blood have been used only to treat blood-related diseases.
Rep. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said the two bills were "not interchangeable." To support only the Smith bill would be to "offer hope to some and sympathy to others."
The science of embryonic stem cells is moving rapidly, much of it on the state level, most notably in California, or in other countries.
Scientists who depend on federal funding, such as those at the National Institutes of Health, could be left behind, advocates say. They note that the roughly 60 stem cell lines Bush said were available for federal research have turned out to be 22.
Sun staff writer Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.