GOP senators vow to filibuster stem cell research measure

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The legislative clash over state funding for stem cell research intensified yesterday with Republican senators promising to filibuster a bill that Democrats want to rush to a vote.

Meanwhile, two top aides to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said the administration, which has proposed $20 million for research into adult or embryonic stem cells, should not support legislative plans that would commit $125 million over five years for research.

The governor's budget secretary and top health officer said legislation being pushed by Democratic leaders would irresponsibly commit the governor to future funding and would create new responsibilities for distributing the money that state agencies can't handle.

But House Speaker Michael E. Busch and other Democratic leaders promised yesterday that they would pass stem cell legislation despite the governor's objections. Concerns from Ehrlich aides, Busch said, illustrate the governor's reluctance "to deal in embryonic stem cell research from the outset."

"I think this is about them wanting the positive political impact of talking about stem cell research without actually getting down and delivering the specifics," he said.

Busch said he would shepherd a funding bill sponsored by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, through his chamber. The bill is necessary, the speaker said, to provide a structure to allocate state money toward research that has the best chance of scientific breakthroughs.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, vowed to get her companion bill to the floor in coming weeks for a vote.

Hollinger said at a morning news conference that she hoped for the governor's support. "I think with his money and our bill that we could have a very nice marriage," she said.

But Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Senate Minority Leader, said opponents number enough to sustain a filibuster, a move they threatened last year but which never came to fruition.

"It could go the whole session," Stoltzfus said of the filibuster, "until they withdraw the bill."

Six Democrats appear willing to side with the chamber's 14 Republicans in a filibuster, sources familiar with the vote count say; 19 votes are needed to halt a filibuster.

With legislative committees meeting yesterday to discuss stem-cell bills, two of the governor's Cabinet secretaries released letters to lawmakers outlining their concerns.

"Mandated funding constrains the ability of the governor to address changing economic circumstances because it directs an allocation of resources without consideration of all the needs of the citizens of Maryland," Cecilia Januszkiewicz, secretary of the Department of Budget and Management, wrote to legislators.

In addition to Januszkiewicz's letter, which called the House bill "unnecessary," lawmakers hearing testimony yesterday also received a letter from S. Anthony McCann, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. McCann wrote in opposition to a provision in the legislation requiring Health Department officials to allocate state grant money.

"If the department were to hire the kind of expertise required the administrative costs would be substantial and would lower the amount of funding available for research," McCann said.

Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Ehrlich has not "taken a formal position" on the Democratic funding bills. But she said that he is "increasingly concerned about the legislature's proclivity to mandate funding."

"The governor will not be pressured into supporting this legislation," DeLeaver said. "When and if additional decisions need to be made, he will do so."

As the administration and Democratic lawmakers started to jockey for position in the debate over stem cell research, two House committees and a Senate committee heard testimony yesterday from scientists, doctors, clergy and citizens about the bills, which would establish a peer review commission to vet and prioritize grant proposals.

Opponents of state funding for embryonic stem cell research, such as the Rev. Tad Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, argued that it is unethical.

Pacholczyk cautioned against the "destruction of younger members of the species in favor of older ones" and called science "a radical power in our midst."

Proponents of the bill said embryonic stem cell research - embryonic cells have the ability to become different kinds of cells in the body - could hold the key to treating or curing a range of diseases.

"We are not chasing mirages, we are pursuing our dreams," said John Gearhart, a leading stem cell researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "These dreams are now becoming reality."

Andrew Siegel, associate director of academic programs in the Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics Institute at Johns Hopkins, said that "one of our highest moral callings" is to prevent suffering and death, and that embryos "cannot experience pain or suffering, love or sorrow, hope or joy."

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic candidate for governor, also testified in support of the bills, saying Maryland needs to step in because the federal government has restricted funding to existing embryonic stem cell lines. When asked by Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Republican from Southern Maryland, whether he supports the governor's efforts to put money in the budget for stem cell research, O'Malley said he did.

"Our state should lead in the healing sciences," O'Malley said.

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

Today in Annapolis

House of Delegates convenes at 10 a.m. Senate convenes at 10 a.m. Events of interest:

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. delivers his annual state-of-the-state address at noon in the House of Delegates chambers.

The Senate Finance Committee holds a hearing on several horse-racing bills, including SB 98, which would authorize night and Sunday racing at Maryland tracks. The hearings begin at 1:30 p.m. in Room 3 East in the Miller Senate Office Building.

An article in Thursday's editions of The Sun on stem cell legislation in the General Assembly misstated the number of votes needed to sustain a filibuster in the Senate. The support of 29 senators is required to end a filibuster; 19 senators are enough to sustain it.The Sun regrets the error.
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