The 213-204 vote against the cloning bill fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed under a special procedure that limits debate and does not allow amendments. The parties accused each other of using the legislation to score political points before a Thursday vote to send a stem cell bill to the White House that President Bush says he will veto.
Only 14 of 196 voting Republicans supported it. Among Democrats, 190 of the 221 voting were for it.
The bill, hastily added to the House agenda Wednesday, makes it illegal to use cloning technology to initiate a pregnancy and create a cloned human being. Violators would be subject to up to 10 years in prison and face fines of up to $10 million.
"The bill bans human reproductive cloning. Nothing more, nothing less," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., the bill's sponsor. "It defies logic why anyone would vote against this bill."
But the White House, which issued a veto threat on the bill, and Republicans saw it differently, saying the bill would facilitate the creation of cloned human embryos to be used for research and then destroyed.
"In practice this means that embryos will be cloned, used for experimentation, harvesting, research, then assigned a death sentence," said Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-Pa.
"Are we willing to make the human embryo the lab rat of the 21st century?" asked Rep. David Weldon, R-Fla.
DeGette noted that cloning for research and therapeutic purposes is legal and her bill does nothing to change that.
Her bill, she said, was a clear vote: "Do you oppose human reproductive cloning and think that it should be a federal crime in this country or are you in the pocket of the special interests who will make any argument because they don't think this bill goes far enough to ban other types of research which are legal right now in this country?"
A leading anti-abortion group, the National Right to Life Committee, sent a letter to lawmakers Wednesday urging them to defeat the bill. The measure, wrote the group's legislative director Douglas Johnson, "does not ban any human cloning at all." He said the cloning bill, as a companion to the stem cell legislation, "is carefully drafted precisely to permit the deliberate creation of human embryos for the sole purpose of research."
The House and Senate have both approved legislation this year to ease restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, and House passage Thursday of the Senate version would send it to the president.
Bush last year vetoed a similar bill, the first veto of his presidency, reiterating the views of anti-abortion groups that active federal support for stem cell research it "crossed a moral line" because it involves the destruction of human embryos. In previous votes, neither the House nor the Senate reached the two-thirds margin needed to overcome a veto.
Supporters of stem cell research argue that it offers real hope for cures to Alzheimer's, diabetes and other injuries.