WASHINGTON – Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid called Wednesday for a swift vote on House-passed legislation to expand federal support of embryonic stem cell research (search) and said President Bush was "wrong politically, morally and scientifically" for opposing the measure.
Echoing claims made by House supporters of the legislation, the Nevada Democrat said embryonic stem cell research holds the promise of helping millions afflicted with diabetes, Alzheimer's (search) disease and other illnesses.
He urged an "up-or-down vote," meaning one with no amendments allowed.
Reid made his comments on the day after the House approved legislation on vote of 238-194 — far less than the two-thirds support that would be needed to override a veto Bush has threatened.
"There's no chance it will become law," said Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., one of numerous abortion foes to oppose the House measure. "I don't know why the Senate would bother taking it up."
A companion Senate bill is sponsored by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa and Arlen Specter, R-Pa. It would lift Bush's 2001 restrictions on federal funding for new embryonic stem cell research. Senate opponents have threatened a filibuster, and it is not clear whether supporters could amass the 60 votes that would be needed to overcome it.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has not scheduled the measure for floor debate.
"The American people cannot afford to wait any longer for our top scientists to realize the full potential of stem cell research," said Harkin of Iowa, the bill's chief Democratic sponsor.
A veto would be the president's first. Bush says he opposes the bill because it would open the way for federally funded research that could create life to destroy it.
Proponents say federal funding for the research on days-old embryos, using a process that destroys them, would accelerate the search for treatments and perhaps cures for diseases such as Parkinson's (search) and Alzheimer's. They say the embryos would have been discarded anyway.
Opponents dispute that, questioning any evidence that embryonic stem cell research will lead to cures. They say taxpayers should not be forced to finance science they see as an attack on unborn babies and Bush's "culture of life."
Bush on Tuesday called the House bill "a mistake."
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., one of the Senate's staunchest opponents of abortion, said he was "disheartened" by the House's approval but pleased by Bush's veto threat.
"Government should encourage lifesaving research, but should focus on science that both works and is ethical," he said.
The bill's supporters said the Senate should weigh in despite the opposition.
"Let's have an up-or-down vote," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said in an interview.
The medical promise of embryonic stem cell research prompted several House members of both parties who oppose abortion rights to vote yes nonetheless. The moral obligation, they argued, rested on Congress to fund research that could lead to cures for debilitating illnesses.
"Who can say that prolonging a life is not pro-life?" said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., who said she had a "perfect" pro-life record and whose mother-in-law had died the night before of Alzheimer's disease.
"I must follow my heart on this and cast a vote in favor," she said.
"Being pro-life also means fighting for policies that will eliminate pain and suffering," said Rep. James R. Langevin, D-R.I., who was paralyzed at 16 in a gun accident.
But Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and other House members who voted against the bill said that even if this type of embryonic stem cell research were proven to cure disease, forcing taxpayers to foot the bill would still be wrong.
"In the life of men and nations some mistakes you can't undo," DeLay said as he closed the House debate. "If we afford the little embryo any shred of respect and dignity we cannot in good faith use taxpayer dollars to destroy them."
He and Bush urged passage of another measure which would fund research and treatment on stem cells derived instead from umbilical cord blood and adults.
That bill passed 431-1, with Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, the lone no vote.