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Lost in ‘Nuke’ Furor: House Stem-Cell Vote

While most of the media’s attention will be riveted on an arcane, but historic, procedural fight in the Senate, an only slightly less bizarre floor debate will occur today on the other side of the Capitol.

The House will take the rare step today of voting on legislation that the Republican leadership would prefer not to have scheduled at all: an embryonic stem-cell

research bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.). The measure is expected to pass with a combination of Republican and Democratic votes, and would thus represent a setback for the Republican Party brass. Sort of.

First of all, by dealing with the Castle bill now, GOP leaders are getting a contentious vote out of the way 18 months before the next election. And in exchange for a floor vote and a pledge by the leadership not to whip against their bill, Castle and Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) made some concessions of their own, thus ensuring that it will be harder for Democrats to bring the measure up again during campaign season.

“The agreement is we allow the moderates an up-or-down vote on this bill, and in return they’ve agreed to stave off Democrats’ attempts to attach this piece of legislation to other bills,” said a Republican leadership aide.

Second, today’s suspension calendar features a competing measure on umbilical stem cells authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) that will likely draw the support of a broad cross-section of the GOP Conference, including the entire leadership — an unusual partnership given that those same leaders took away Smith’s chairmanship of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee earlier this year.

And third, President Bush has vowed to veto any bill that allows federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, meaning that Castle’s bill would become law only if it can garner two-thirds support in both chambers.

Still, the unusual politics behind the stem-cell issue has put Republican leaders in unfamiliar positions.

Though he opposes the Castle bill, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has made good on his promise to grant it a floor vote. Last week, he was forced to step in and calm intraparty tensions after the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership sponsored polls on the stem-cell issue in several GOP-held districts.

The polling prompted an argument that nearly produced blows on the House floor between Kirk, one of the GOP Conference’s smallest members, and Rep. Rick Renzi (Ariz.), one of the biggest. The dispute boiled over at a full Conference meeting, and Hastert was forced to tell both sides to cool it.

Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), meanwhile, is a staunch opponent of the Castle bill. Though he is bound by Hastert’s promise not to whip in opposition to the measure, DeLay does plan to organize and lead the floor debate against it.

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