House GOP Divided Over Stem Cells

House Republican leaders are throwing their weight behind a bill to encourage stem cell research that uses blood from umbilical cords. The measure offers an alternative to spending government money for research that would destroy human embryos.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (search), R-Ill., had agreed earlier to allow a vote as soon as next week on a bill by Reps. Mike Castle (search), R-Del., and Diana DeGette (search), D-Colo., to lift President Bush's 2001 ban on the use of federal dollars for research using any new embryonic stem cells lines.

But after Castle and other moderate Republicans angered conservatives by sponsoring polls in their districts on the issue, Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search), R-Texas, said they would pair the bill with a separate measure to encourage umbilical cord stem cell research.

DeGette on Thursday said the GOP leaders' plan was "a weak attempt to divert support from our bill."

"The bills are completely compatible," she said. She said she intends to vote for both measures and will encourage other members to do the same.

Supporters of embryo stem cell research, including Nancy Reagan (search), say it could lead to cures for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other degenerative brain and nerve diseases. Opponents say taxpayers should not be forced to pay for such research when large numbers of them believe that the resulting destruction of the embryo is immoral.

Cord blood cells are similar to embryonic cells but can grow into fewer types of tissues. Extracting stem cells from cord blood does not require the destruction of an embryo.

"There are some members who might be more inclined to vote no on Castle if they can vote yes on the cord blood bill," Rep. Dave Weldon (search), R-Fla., said Thursday.

The effort to provide undecided members an option more agreeable to anti-abortion groups jeopardizes the momentum the Castle-DeGette measure acquired after President Reagan's death last June and the Terri Schiavo (search) right-to-die case this year.

Supporters claim to have about 200 co-sponsors in the 435-member House and commitments from enough other members to garner the 218 votes needed to pass it despite a White House-promised veto.

A rare split appeared in the House GOP caucus when Weldon and others said some sponsors of the Castle-DeGette bill helped finance a poll by the Winston Group in the districts of fellow Republicans showing that opposing the bill might prove unpopular back home.

The survey of 1,300 registered voters — about 100 in each if 13 districts — asked respondents for their views on embryonic stem cell research, according to the firm's spokeswoman, Amy Hopcian. Of those polled, 66 percent favored stem cell research, 27 percent opposed it and the rest were undecided.

The bill's opponents and GOP leaders criticized the polling during two meetings on Wednesday, according to lawmakers and aides. The resentment even spilled onto the House floor, where Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., who opposes the bill, and Rep. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., who supports it, got into an argument.