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Senate Prepares For New Showdown Over Stem Cell Research Dollars

The Democratically controlled Senate is headed for yet another showdown with President Bush next week, this time over embryonic stem cell research paid for with taxpayer dollars.

On Wednesday, with the likely support of about a third of Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats are expected to pass a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that expands the field of embryonic stem cell research using federal dollars.

However, with much of the party leadership focused intensely on the recent imbroglio over the Iraq war spending bill, this year's debate has little of the fanfare of past fights.

But this year, Democrats are actually closer than ever before to getting the two-thirds majority needed to override the president's promised veto. In fact, based on past vote tallies and the positions of new members entering the Senate after the November election, the Senate is likely to come up one vote shy of the 66 votes needed for a veto override (if only Sen Tim Johnson, D-S.D., recovering from brain surgery, is absent for the vote).

Aides say the pressure is on politically vulnerable members like Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., who has voted against this research in the past.

The bill requires "the secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct and support research that utilizes human embryonic stem cells, regardless of the date on which the stem cells were derived from a human embryo."

Current Bush administration policy permits research on human embryonic stem cell lines that existed before the president announced the policy on August 10, 2001.

There are limitations in the Harkin bill. Stem cells can only be taken from excess human embryos that would otherwise be destroyed and are donated from in vitro fertilization, as long as donors give "written, informed consent and receive no financial or other inducements."

One bill that is not expected to pass but has garnered the support of the White House is sponsored by Republican Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Johnny Isakson of Georgia. It allows the use of federal funds for research with stem cells extracted from "dead" human embryos or extracted from embryos without destroying them. It would also promote the extraction of stem cells from other sources, like amniotic fluid.

Even if Senate Democrats can garner the votes needed to defy Bush, the fate of embryonic stem cell research is likely to be unchanged this year. The House passed a similar measure to Harkin's in January, but it fell well short of the two-thirds majority needed for a veto override.

Opponents have condemned this kind of research as unethical and immoral because it involves destroying human embryos which have the potential, they say, to become human life.