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Next Steps for Stem Cells in Congress

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Enacting legislation that will remove the August 9, 2001 restriction on embryonic stem cells available for federal funding will be at the top of the new Congress’ agenda for next year.

Increasing the cell lines eligible for federal research funding is part of the new Congress’ “Six for 06” platform for the first 100 days of the next Congress. The current Congress passed similar legislation—HR 810, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act—which sought to allow federal funding to go toward research using embryonic stem cells regardless of when the cell lines were derived. It also created an ethical framework for the research.

This bill never became law because it was vetoed by President Bush. Supporters were unable to muster the two-thirds majority in the House needed to override the veto, so the bill died, setting the stage for the coming year.

The incoming Senate will have a different makeup, even though funding for embryonic stem cell research is not a clearly partisan issue. Based on the voting records of incumbent Senators and the public statements (and in some cases, voting records) of newly-elected Senators, embryonic stem cell research advocates appear to be on the doorstep of a veto-proof victory.

But finding a veto-proof majority in the House will likely be an uphill battle. Advocates may be forced to continue to rely on state governments to continue to pick up the slack for the limited federal dollars. Despite the promise of these embryonic stem cells, the National Institutes of Health has spent only about 10 percent of what it has invested on so-called “adult” stem cells.

The Senate

Last year, HR 810 received 63 votes—four votes shy of the 67 needed to override a presidential veto. Our preliminary analysis indicates that supporters of HR 810 have 66 votes in the incoming Senate. The three vote pick-up comes from the defeat of four opposing senators who are being replaced by research supporters, and the retirement of one supporter replaced by an opponent. These new senators are considered supporters because they: have made public statements in support of embryonic stem cell research; made public statements supporting HR 810; or voted to override the president’s veto as members of the House. They are:


HR 810 Opponent    
Senator-elect
DeWine (R-OH) Brown (D)
Burns (R-MT) Tester (D)
Talent (R-MO) McCaskill (D)
Allen (R-VA) Webb (D)


Former Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) is the only supporter of the bill not returning next year whose replacement, Senator-elect Corker (R-TN), has expressed concerns about embryonic stem cell research. Senator-elect Corker has therefore been placed in the opposed category.

Note that Senators-elect Cardin (D-MD), Whitehouse (D-RI), Klobuchar (D-MN), and Sanders (D-VT) are supporters who are replacing other supporters, while Senator-elect Casey (D-PA) has indicated his opposition to HR 810, consistent with his predecessor Sen. Santorum (R-PA). No Senate supporter of the bill was defeated.

Supporters of expanded funding for embryonic stem cell research are on the cusp of a veto-proof majority in the Senate. In addition to working to ensure that those Senators who supported the bill last year continue to do so, advocates must focus their efforts to gain an additional vote.

The House

The House will be less hospitable to embryonic stem cell legislation than the Senate, just as it was in the last Congress. Research supporters got 235 votes to overturn the president’s veto in the summer, falling short of the 290 votes needed.

Advocates will need to look beyond the 29 new officeholders for the 56 votes they need. This is especially true because some of the defeated incumbents voted in favor of the override the veto, including Reps. Johnson (R-CT), Bass (R-NH), and Leach (R-IA). Because some of the newly-elected representatives were clearly recruited because of their centrist views, their opinions on embryonic stem cell research are currently unknown.

Our analysis indicates that H.R. 810 is about 40 votes shy of a two-thirds majority at this writing. Research advocates did, however, made stunning gains in the House during the last Congress and were able to pass HR 810. They will need to re-double their efforts next year if they want to secure a veto-proof majority.

The States

States will continue to be stem cell research battlegrounds in 2007 as advocates continue to look to the states for supportive laws and additional funding.

Toward that end, Tuesday’s election results appear to be good news. Many incumbents and candidates who publicly supported embryonic stem cell research funding won their races. These include: Schwarzenegger (R-CA); Spitzer (D-NY); Doyle (D-WI); Blagojevich (D-IL); Rell (R-CT); Baldacci (D-ME); Richardson (D-NM); Crist (R-FL); and O’Malley (D-MD)[1] .

Missouri voters also endorsed an amendment to the state’s constitution that affirmatively allows researchers to pursue embryonic stem cell studies. This will not only spur investment in that state but will likely empower advocates in other states to embark on similar campaigns.

Conclusion

After years of debate in the halls of Congress, funding for embryonic stem cell research became a salient election issue in dozens of congressional and gubernatorial races across the country this year. The results showed strong bipartisan support.

The challenge for research advocates will be to translate that support into enough votes in Congress to enact legislation to change federal policy and that of individual states to enact favorable policies and provide funding. It won’t be easy. The issues surrounding stem cell research remain contentious. Research supporters must continue to present the scientific potential of the research along with a set of ethical requirements to ensure the research is done appropriately. But the midterm elections show that the prospects for expanded research are better now than they have ever been.

Michael Werner is CEO of The Werner Group and Jonathan D. Moreno is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

[1] O’Malley’s opponent, former Governor Ehrlich, also supported stem cell research funding.

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