WASHINGTON – The Senate wouldn't vote until next year on a House-passed bill to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research under a deal quietly being suggested by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
Supporters of the stem cell bill insist they want the vote in 2005, as Frist, a supporter of the bill, has promised. But even they acknowledge there may not be time since the rest of this year's calendar is packed with disaster relief and spending bills, budget talks and Harriet Miers' Supreme Court (search) nomination.
"The problem is, when do you get the floor time?" said Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (search), R-Pa., the stem cell bill's sponsor who also is overseeing the Miers confirmation hearings.
Specter, a cancer patient, had threatened to attach the stem cell measure to a must-pass spending bill for federal education, labor, health and welfare programs if Frist didn't schedule a separate vote on it. Specter chairs the appropriations subcommittee that's writing the spending bill.
In the deal Frist is floating, Specter would drop his threat in exchange for a stem cell vote set on a "date certain" in 2006, according to a Senate Republican official who demanded anonymity because negotiations were still taking place.
"I could live with that," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a longtime proponent of federal funding for stem cell research who has grown impatient with the delay. "But it's important to have a date certain."
The bill, passed in May by the House, would loosen restrictions that President Bush (search) imposed in 2001 on government-paid research on human embryonic stem cells (search). The studies are considered promising in the search for cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's, cancer and Parkinson's.
But the process destroys the embryo, considered human life by many religious conservatives. Bush has promised to veto the bill because he says taxpayers should not be forced to sponsor such studies.
Fifty House Republicans defied their leaders and voted for the bill in May after an emotional floor debate. In July, Frist, a heart transplant surgeon and possible presidential candidate, announced his support of it.