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House OKs boost for stem cell study

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- After an emotional day of debate in which lawmakers invoked their own medical tragedies and those of families, friends and constituents, the House of Representatives voted yesterday to expand federally funded embryonic stem cell research.

The vote was 253-174, short of what is necessary to override a promised presidential veto. But the third major piece of legislation to pass the House this week fulfilled a key campaign promise Democrats made on their path to winning the majority.

The measure is expected to pass the Senate and then, in a replay of last year's action, it is expected to provoke what would be just the second veto in President Bush's tenure. The bill "would use federal taxpayer dollars to support and encourage the destruction of human life for research," the White House said in a statement.

Thirty-seven Republicans joined 216 Democrats to pass the legislation, which would undo restrictions on the research put in place by the president in 2001. All six of Maryland's Democratic representatives supported funding. Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland voted against the bill, while Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore did not vote.

Most scientists believe embryonic stem cells can form all of the different tissue types found in the human body, which could lead to the treatment of an array of serious ailments, from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases to juvenile diabetes, cancer and spinal cord injuries.

But critics decry the destruction of human embryos that takes place in the course of that research, and say there is another way to find cures through adult stem cell research, blood cord research and now research into stem cells found in amniotic fluid and placentas.

"I support stem cell research with only one exception - research that requires killing human life," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican. "Taxpayer-funded stem cell research must be carried out in an ethical manner in a way that respects the sanctity of human life. Fortunately, ethical stem cell alternatives continue to flourish."

Advocates countered with stories of illness and accident, describing their hope that embryonic stem cell research could yield an answer to their pain.

"When I was injured in an accidental shooting almost 26 years ago, I was told I would never walk again," said Rep. Jim Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat, speaking from his wheelchair. "I always held out hope that someday that would change. ... It is only today that that promise for a cure has become truly real."

In 2001, Bush prohibited federally funded research using embryonic stem cell lines derived after Aug. 9 of that year. Scientists have complained that only 22 of the cell lines are available for use, and that they are of limited genetic diversity.

The debate yesterday showcased many of the new Democrats elected to Congress, many of whom campaigned last year for overturning Bush's policy.

"A lot of candidates, including myself, used this issue as a staple of their campaigns," said Rep. Jason Altmire, a Pennsylvania Democrat, who opposes abortion but supports embryonic stem cell research.

He argued that embryos used in research would have been destroyed anyway by fertility clinics unable to use them.

House Republicans are pushing to increase federal funding for new research in stem cells derived from amniotic fluid as a way of quelling interest in embryonic stem cell research.

Today, House Democrats are expected to pass a bill that directs Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices for 23 million seniors, setting up a clash with Bush that could help determine the direction of future health care reforms - whether the government plays a major role or relies on private enterprise.

The prescription drug bill repeals a Republican-approved ban on letting the government negotiate with manufacturers for lower prices. Prospects for Senate action on a similar measure improved yesterday when a key Democrat, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, announced that he has changed his mind and could support some form of bargaining authority for Medicare.

The White House said Bush would veto the House bill if it should reach his desk, saying, "government interference impedes competition, limits access to life-saving drugs and ultimately increases costs."

Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune. The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

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