WASHINGTON - Their ranks bolstered by the November elections, supporters of legislation boosting taxpayer-funded research on embryonic stem cells were poised to easily pass the bill again even though President Bush vetoed it last year.
The House was to pass the bill Thursday. But the vote was virtually certain to fall short of the two-thirds margin needed to override another Bush veto, vote counters on both sides of the issue said.
At stake was whether research on cells taken from human embryos - considered by scientists to be the most promising approach to developing potential treatments or cures for dozens of diseases - should be underwritten with taxpayer funds.
The debate raises passions since the research typically involves the destruction of frozen embryos created for in vitro fertilization, which ensures fierce opposition from anti-abortion lawmakers and like-minded constituents who believe their taxes should not fund such research.
"I simply believe it's morally wrong to create human life to destroy it for research," said GOP conservative Mike Pence of Indiana, echoing Bush's rationale for his veto in July. "This debate is not about whether research that involves the destruction of human embryos should be legal. This debate is about who pays for it."
Polls show most Americans support embryonic stem cell research, and Democrats say the issue played a big role in the Nov. 7 elections that returned their party to the majority in the House and Senate.
But in the House, Democratic gains of 30 seats don't translate into anywhere near that number of new votes for the embryonic stem cell research bill, sponsored by Reps. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Mike Castle, R-Del.
For starters, many Democratic freshman defeated more moderate Republicans who voted for the bill when it originally passed in 2005 and on an unsuccessful veto override attempt last year. And some Republicans who supported the bill have been replaced with opponents of the measure.
As a result, said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, House embryonic stem cell research proponents have gained only about a dozen votes.
If every House member votes, it takes 290 votes to override a veto. Support reached a high-water mark of 238 in the prior GOP-controlled House.
"It will be difficult to get to 290 votes, but we're gaining on it," DeGette said.
Senate proponents of the research claim they now have enough votes to override a veto, but Johnson said that would require at least one senator who voted against it last year to change his or her vote.
Both the House and Senate have to override a veto for a bill to become law without a president's signature.
DeGette made her remarks at a news conference where she was surrounded by Democratic freshman who said the issue resonated in their campaigns. One of them, Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., opposes abortion but said he would vote for the bill.
"I've seen the promise" of embryonic stem cell research, Altmire said. "There's no doubt in my mind that a vote for embryonic stem cell research is a pro-life vote."
The debate comes just days after new research reported that stem cells extracted harmlessly from the amniotic fluid that cushions a fetus in-utero hold much the same promise for disease-fighting as embryonic stem cells.
Scientists still say, however, say that embryonic stem cells so far are backed by the most promising evidence that one day they might be used to grow replacements for damaged tissue, such as new insulin-producing cells for diabetics or new nerve connections to restore movement after spinal injury.
The legislation would lift Bush's 2001 ban on federal dollars spent on deriving new stem cells from fertilized embryos. Bush's veto of the bill last year was the first veto of his presidency.
Embryonic stem cells are able to morph into any of the more than 220 cell types that make up the human body. They typically are culled from fertility-clinic leftovers otherwise destined to be thrown away. But because the culling kills the embryos, Bush on Aug. 9, 2001, restricted government funding to research using only the embryonic stem cell lines then in existence, groups of stem cells kept alive and propagating in lab dishes.