Hoping to push Maryland to the forefront of cutting-edge science, key senators and leading medical researchers are negotiating a revised stem cell research plan in an effort to avoid a threatened GOP filibuster and win the backing of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Talks have been quietly under way for more than a week, and a high-level administration official is expected to meet with scientists tomorrow in Annapolis to discuss the matter, according to people familiar with the talks.
"We're looking at some form of compromise to move the issue forward," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "This bill is about saving lives. We need to move forward as expeditiously as possible."
Democrats, with the help of scientists, are looking to broaden the language in Sen. Paula Hollinger's funding bill to include different types of stem cell research, not just embryonic. They are considering dropping the words "embryo" or "embryonic" from the bill altogether, a move that could bring support from conservatives who would rather see state money dedicated to adult stem cell research.
For practical purposes, though, the change would also leave the door open to embryonic research.
"I'm working to make this pass, to make it happen, and I'm a determined young lady," Hollinger said.
An Ehrlich spokesman said the governor believes his plan is better.
"We are proceeding as planned," Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said yesterday. "The governor intends to see his budget proposal through."
Ehrlich has proposed $13.5 million for a new center for regenerative medicine in Baltimore and $20 million for stem cell research. Although he has expressed personal support for embryonic stem cell research, his plan tasks the Maryland Technology Development Corp., a group that falls within the state Department of Business and Economic Development, with determining what types of projects would be funded with the research money.
Democrats have said the technology group needs guidelines for administering the grant money and input from scientists who could help judge the merits of proposals, but Ehrlich has said he does not think legislation is necessary.
Senate Republicans have said that they have the numbers - 14 Republicans and six Democrats - to block debate on Hollinger's bill and prevent a vote. But debate is possible if two senators who favor the filibuster change their minds. It takes 19 votes to sustain a filibuster.
A stem cell research bill died in April under the threat of a filibuster led by conservative Republicans in the state Senate.
Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican, said he still believes he has the votes to filibuster this year. "The landscape hasn't changed a lot as far as I can see," he said.
But Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat and a Roman Catholic who would otherwise support a filibuster, expressed support yesterday for a modified version of Hollinger's bill.
"It will have to take some significant changes to the language in the bill so that all types of research including adult stem cell research can be funded," Giannetti said, noting also that he would like the technology group to have some oversight over the research money.
Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Howard County Republican who has said she backs Ehrlich's plan, said this week that she would take a good look at a revised version of Hollinger's bill if it includes adult stem cell research and provides a role for the technology corporation. "I like a win-win, and I would love to see a compromise," she said.
Hollinger's proposal includes $25 million a year for five years for embryonic stem cell research. The bill would allow research on human embryos that would otherwise be discarded from fertility clinics, a point opposed by some conservatives who believe such efforts are akin to abortion.
Scientists believe stem cell research could help produce treatments or cures for a number of diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. In 2001, President Bush limited federal funding for research to existing stem cell lines, prompting several states to commit money to broader research.
Curt I. Civin, a cancer research expert at the Johns Hopkins University, said he would be open to the technology group's involvement in administering grant money. Overall, though, he said he would like to see science, not politics, driving the decisions about how the money would be spent.
"Compromise is the American way, and we're certainly open to compromising in a way that will be scientifically appropriate to fund the best stem cell scientific research," Civin said.
Miller said he would like to get on board the Democrats who have expressed a willingness to filibuster.
"I just don't have any sympathy for Democrats who are going to hold up the business of the Senate," Miller said. "We need to make progress. We need to save lives."