Leaders Circumvent Hatch

Brownback Writes Bill To Avoid Judiciary

Posted February 4, 2003 at 4:37pm

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) last week quietly reshaped his bill that bans human cloning in a move that deliberately prevented Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) from getting his hands on the legislation.

Brownback’s maneuvering, which has the backing of the Senate GOP leadership, is just the latest example of the mistrust that some Senate Republicans expressed about Hatch, who has frustrated colleagues by not toeing the conservative line often enough.

Using parliamentary rules on how bills are referred to certain committees, Brownback slightly changed his cloning bill, which last year fell under the purview of Judiciary, so that it would instead be sent to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. HELP Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) has supported Brownback’s goal of outlawing all new efforts to clone human cells, rather than Hatch’s desire to allow scientists to continue conducting limited cloning research on human cells in the hopes of finding cures for some diseases.

Because Hatch has his own rival measure — supported by HELP ranking member Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Judiciary members Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — Brownback and other Senate GOP leaders wanted to avoid having to navigate the Judiciary Committee where they believe President Bush’s position would face certain failure. Democrats say virtually all of the Judiciary Democrats, including Kennedy, would likely vote with Hatch and Specter on their proposal against the wishes of the White House, which backs the Brownback bill.

“I think we’ll probably get a little better treatment in the HELP Committee,” said Brownback, whose stance on cloning is also supported by the House Republican leadership, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and the White House. Frist sits on the HELP panel.

In devising his bill so that it would go to HELP, Brownback decided to change the law under which the cloning ban would be enacted. Rather than attempting to place the ban in Judiciary’s jurisdiction under U.S. penal code, as he did in 2001 and 2002, Brownback decided to amend the Public Health Service Act, which falls under HELP’s jurisdiction.

“There are parliamentary conventions that can be used or abused to ensure referral to a more friendly committee,” acknowledged a senior GOP aide.

In every other respect, Brownback’s bill is identical to a measure introduced in the House by Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), who has spearheaded the push for a cloning ban in Congress and won passage in the House in 2001.

Religious conservatives, who are pushing for a complete human cloning ban, acknowledge the toughest battle over the issue is likely to manifest itself in the Senate, where 60 votes will be needed to break a filibuster. By sending the bill to a more friendly committee chairman, such as Gregg, Brownback’s supporters hope to gain momentum that they can take to the Senate floor.

“Obviously, a successful committee markup can give you a bit of a leg up on the floor,” said one senior Republican leadership aide.

Hatch could not be reached for comment, but spokesman Adam Elggren indicated the Senator’s displeasure with the maneuver.

“Senator Hatch thinks it’s certainly fair and within the rules, what [Brownback] did, but it would seem this is more appropriate for the Judiciary Committee to handle,” Elggren said.

Elggren added that Hatch “fully intends” to push his own bill through the Judiciary Committee, probably sometime this spring, which will set the stage for an interesting clash.

Although Frist is unlikely to bring Hatch’s bill up as the vehicle for a cloning ban on the Senate floor, a successful Judiciary markup of the bill could counteract Brownback’s goal of giving his measure the momentum it needs to pass. Senate Republican leaders, mindful of the difficulty of finding a filibuster-proof majority for the complete ban on human cloning, have been cagey about when the measure might come to the floor, but they acknowledge it is a top priority for them and the White House this year.

But Gregg spokeswoman Christine Iverson said HELP would likely mark up the bill and send it to the Senate floor before the end of the summer.

Still, the HELP panel is not necessarily a slam dunk for Brownback and Republican leaders. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who is a member of the panel, has expressed support for research on embryonic stem cells, a related issue.

Anti-abortion lawmakers oppose stem-cell research for much the same reason they oppose human cloning research — they believe it ultimately results in the destruction of a life. Stem-cell research lines often come from the umbilical cords of aborted fetuses, though they may also come from live babies. In human cell cloning, which is a form of stem-cell research, the nucleus of the cell is removed and replaced with genetic material from an existing human organism. For research purposes, the cells are usually discarded before they grow into human fetuses, scientists contend.

The decision to sidestep Hatch is not a new one for GOP leaders. Hatch’s persistently good working relationship with Kennedy and his willingness to compromise on issues without the consent of Republican leaders has often irked his GOP colleagues. In 1997, Hatch ran afoul of then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) when he devised a child health bill with Kennedy that GOP leaders disliked. Again that year, Hatch sparred with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over the Utah lawmaker’s decision to work with Kennedy on a settlement bill dealing with tobacco lawsuits. Hatch also has had to fight off attempts by Republican leaders to weaken his hand in judicial nomination proceedings.

This year, House GOP leaders say another vote on banning cloning is likely to come before Members leave for their spring recess on April 11. But Pamela Groover, Weldon’s spokeswoman, said Weldon has no plans at this time to reconfigure his bill to mirror Brownback’s decision to amend the Public Health Service Act. Doing so would eliminate the need for a conference committee if Brownback’s bill makes it through the Senate.

Hatch has acknowledged that his bill, which will be introduced today, is in jeopardy of being filibustered. Still, he believes a simple majority of the Senate supports his proposal to allow medical researchers to clone human cells for therapeutic purposes, while prohibiting the creation of a cloned human child. Brownback and his supporters argue that cloning human cells has not produced a cure for any disease so far and that the dangers of cloning outweigh any potential benefits.

Despite the Republican’s cloning strategy, Senate Democratic leaders plan to actively fight Brownback’s effort both in committee and on the Senate floor. And aides say it is unlikely a full ban on human cloning will pass the Senate this session.

“Ultimately, that’s an interesting political maneuver, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to have an easier time on the floor,” said Kennedy spokesman Jim Manley.