Coleman Seeks Another Stem-Cell Bill

Posted July 22, 2005 at 6:25pm

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) has thrown another wrench into the Senate Republican dispute over how and when to take up a controversial debate over stem-cell research, making it even more unlikely that the chamber is able to deal with the issue before it adjourns at the end of this week for the August recess.

Coleman is working to craft another bill that he hopes would be added to an already long list of stem-cell and anti-cloning measures that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has proposed voting on as part of the Senate’s consideration of a House-passed bill that would allow federal funding for stem-cell research on embryos that are already slated for destruction.

One Senate GOP source said that Coleman wants to make sure that his views on stem-cell research are adequately represented during the debate. Coleman apparently agrees with many religious conservatives who believe that current methods of stem-cell research — in which embryos are destroyed to harvest their potentially therapeutic cells — is equivalent to taking the life of an unborn baby.

A Coleman aide confirmed that the Senator is exploring his options with colleagues, but declined to offer specifics on what Coleman may propose.

In addition, there is evidence that other, as-yet unnamed religious conservatives may be seeking to delay or block the Senate from voting on the House-passed stem-cell bill, believing that it will get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster.

“There are a number of Republicans who want different things, who want to add to it,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in reference to the difficulty Frist has had in getting a unanimous consent to bring up the stem-cell measures.

“They don’t want to do it because they feel it undermines their position,” Hatch said of what he has consistently predicted would be a solid majority vote for the broad House-passed stem-cell research measure.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), a backer of stem-cell research, agreed.

“The concern by opponents may be that [the House bill will] pass,” he said.

The delay in voting on stem cells prompted Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) last week to threaten to add the House-passed bill to the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies spending bill, setting up the $146 billion bill for a potential presidential veto. Specter chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the bill.

Frist had planned to begin the stem-cell debate the week of July 11. During the July Fourth recess, he floated a plan to have separate votes on the House-passed bill, another House measure encouraging stem-cell extraction from umbilical cord blood and bone marrow, a bill by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) to encourage research on ways to extract stem cells from embryos without destroying the embryo, a measure from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas ) to slightly expand current stem-cell research but to ban the creation of new embryos for research, and two bills from Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), one to ban human cloning, including stem-cell research, and another to ban the creation of animal-human genetic hybrids.

Initially, Hatch and Specter objected to the plan because they felt the Enzi and Hutchison proposals were designed to undermine support for the broad House-passed bill, of which they are Senate sponsors. President Bush has said he would veto the measure. The House-passed cord blood and bone marrow measure, however, has nearly universal support.

But Hatch said last week he and Specter have signed off on the six-bill plan.

“We don’t like them, but we’re willing to vote on them,” Hatch said.

In the interim, Coleman came forward to propose a seventh bill for consideration.

In interviews, Hatch indicated that adding more bills to the unanimous consent request might further muddy the waters of the debate.

Meanwhile, Democrats have said that they have nothing to object to at this point, because Republicans have been loathe to share copies of their legislative alternatives.

“It’s awfully hard for us to agree to a unanimous consent agreement when we haven’t seen bill language for at least one of the bills being discussed,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Likewise, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she was concerned about the lack of information on the alternatives some Republicans are pushing.

“I’m objecting to a UC that I don’t know what’s in it. We are unable to get the text for the others,” she said.

Indeed, Enzi said he has finished drafting his measure, but has only let “a few people take a look at it.”

Enzi spokesman Craig Orfield clarified that those few include GOP members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, of which Enzi is chairman.

Some Democrats, such as Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Reid, have been privy to Hutchison’s bill, which would extend Bush’s current executive order allowing federal funding for research on stem-cell lines derived before Aug. 9, 2001. Her bill would allow research on lines derived up until this year, but ban the creation of embryos for the sole purpose of scientific research.

Meanwhile, Feinstein said she does not want Brownback’s anti-cloning bills to go unanswered and may press for a vote on her own anti-cloning bill, which would block the creation of embryos to create live human clones, but allow cloning techniques for therapeutic research, like stem cells.

Of course, even if Republicans share the Enzi bill with Democrats, aides have indicated that Democratic leaders may still reject Frist’s request to vote on six or more bills.

“It’s so obvious that they’re trying to peel away votes from the House bill that passed the House with bipartisan support,” Manley said.

Democrats have repeatedly insisted that Frist should only bring up the two House-passed bills and abandon efforts to vote on the other measures.

Even if Frist succeeds in brokering some sort of unanimous consent that satisfies all interested parties, it’s unclear what the outcome will be.

While some stalwart anti-abortion Senators, such as Hatch, support the broad House bill, other anti-abortion Members, like Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), remain undecided.

“Every way you go on it, you either end up in a maze or a dead end,” said Nelson.

In order to succeed, Members who support stem-cell research need the backing of all Democrats, including Nelson, and at least 15 Republicans. Some, like Hutchison and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), were previously considered slam dunk supporters, but now are wavering and considering other measures.

Meanwhile, unlikely GOP allies are emerging. For example, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he will buck his leader and home-state colleague, Frist, to vote for both of the House-passed bills and against Brownback’s anti-cloning measures.

Similarly, reliably conservative Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) indicated he is leaning toward voting for the House bill.

“Where cells are going to be discarded, I hope we can find ways to use them,” Cochran said.