Moderates May Win on Stem Cells, But Not Much Else

Posted May 11, 2005 at 4:45pm

Is there a “center” any more? Amid many signs that partisanship now trumps independence every time in Congress, the impending success of House Republican moderates on stem-cell research is encouraging. [IMGCAP(1)]

Using their votes on the budget as leverage, GOP moderates have convinced leaders to permit a vote, possibly next week, to expand federal funding of research using stem cells derived from embryos “left over” at fertility clinics.

The measure is likely to pass the House on a bipartisan basis. A companion Senate measure, also bipartisan, has 58 co-sponsors.

Unfortunately, bipartisanship and independent thinking are becoming rare in Washington. The norm is party-line voting in the House, criticism of moderates who dare leave the fold and, in the Senate, the threat of total (“nuclear”) shutdown in a partisan war over judges.

There’s a slim chance that a bipartisan group of “institutionalists” could save the day in the Senate, but the likelihood is moderates can’t muster the necessary 12 votes and partisanship will plunge the chamber into lockdown.

In other examples of the nasty norm, not a single Senate Democrat so far has sided with President Bush to reform Social Security, and supposedly pro-business New Democrats in the House are lined up with party leadership against free trade with Central America.

One exception to this disheartening pattern is that Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), assisted by five other GOP moderates, joined with Democrats to force the Senate and then Congress to reduce the administration’s hoped-for cuts in Medicaid. The White House is not happy.

Now another departure from pattern is the stem-cell initiative, soon to be the subject of newspaper and television ads featuring words of support from Nancy Reagan.

Under a policy announced by Bush on Aug. 9, 2001, no federal funds can be used for research on stem cells obtained by destroying human embryos after that date.

Stem cells theoretically can be induced to become any human cell, offering hope for curing spinal cord injury, diabetes and much more.

Last month, eight GOP moderates, led by Reps. Mike Castle (Del.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) made their support for the budget resolution contingent on Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) permitting a vote on Castle’s bill to widen stem cell funding to tens of thousands of lines.

The budget resolution passed by the barest of margins, 214-211.

The stem-cell vote may occur as early as next week. Up to 50 Republicans are thought likely to break with the party and join 175 to 180 Democrats pass the bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).

It will be an all-too-rare case of a GOP minority joining a Democratic majority to pass legislation. Previous cases were the discharge petition on campaign finance reform in 2002 and a measure permitting mass importation of pharmaceuticals in 2003.

But while the stem-cell initiative required ingenuity and independence by the House Tuesday Group and Republican Main Street Partnership, it does not involve an all-out conflict with party leaders. The GOP whip organization is not working against it and the Rules Committee appears willing give it a “clean vote” — one not threatened by “killer” amendments.

This may be because, while a companion bill sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) could pass the Senate — if it is not caught up in a “post-nuclear” shutdown — the chances are that Bush will veto it (making the first the veto of his presidency).

Bush has argued that the destruction of embryos, even to potentially cure dread diseases, violates his dedication to a “culture of life.”

Meantime, D.C.’s culture of conflict proceeds apace. As Roll Call reported over the past few weeks, moderate House Democrats who voted with Republicans to pass bankruptcy legislation were accused by party leaders and liberals of “selling out to special interests.”

Allies of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) noted at the same time that the party is “100 percent together” on issues such as Social Security and GOP “ethical abuses.”

Only one House Democrat, Allen Boyd (Fla.), has signaled support for Social Security personal accounts. Only a few are supporting the Central America Free Trade Agreement.

In the Senate, where White House aides hope to win Democratic votes for personal accounts, not a single Democrat has yet declared support for the idea even though, in the past, it has gained favor from such free-thinkers as the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.) and ex-Sens. John Breaux (La.) and Bob Kerrey (Neb.).

These days, moderates such as Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Max Baucus (R-Mont.) have become party-liners on Social Security.

Nelson claims to have found five Democrats willing to break from the pack to block a filibuster on Bush’s judicial nominations if six Republicans will vote against the GOP leadership’s “nuclear” option to ban judicial filibusters. But Nelson won’t name the other Democrats, and no one is stepping forward.

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, said that “on the Democratic side, it’s almost like you are fighting for your survival. It’s self-preservation. The premium is on not breaking ranks, making sure that you’re not getting rolled and that you’re going to be taken account of on important legislation and issues like judges.”

He added that “the overriding factor is fathomless distrust for George Bush. The guy has chosen, for whatever reasons, to be president of half of America. To not pursue bipartisanship in any meaningful way, to allow the most radical voices on his side to dominate. So, what incentive is there for Democrats to work with Republicans and get things done?”

Moreover, he said, “Republicans in their wisdom torpedoed the very Democrats, like [former] Rep. Charlie Stenholm [D-Texas] who would be most likely to search for a third way or a path to bipartisanship on Social Security.

“If you search for compromise with this administration, you get nowhere. They run against you. They gerrymander you. The president campaigns against you. That’s the main reason polarization has proceeded and there are fewer moderates.”

He’s partly right. Another reason is that liberal ideologues dominate the Democratic party, much as conservatives rule among Republicans. Which is why, when someone — anyone — breaks the mold, it’s reason to cheer.