After an intense debate over whether the federal government should fund research on embryonic stem cells, a debate between those who see the embryos as human life and those who side with the medical community, which argues the research could lead to cures for diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, the Senate voted today 63-37 in favor of the federal funding.
"Do we use taxpayer dollars … to destroy young human life for research purposes?" asked Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.
"It offers a new hope, Mr. President, for patients -- for grandmothers and grandfathers, children, mothers, fathers," said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.
The arguments on the Senate floor were emotional and sometimes angry, but the vote does not likely end the issue, because President Bush has said he will veto the bill, possibly as soon as Wednesday.
Among the high-profile supporters weighing in at the contentious debate today was actress Mary Tyler Moore, who has diabetes and was on the Hill urging passage of the bill.
"I'm hopeful," she said, suggesting the president might change his mind about his pledged veto. "This is an intelligent human being with a heart, and I don't see how much longer he can deny those aspects of himself."
In a statement released this evening, former first lady Nancy Reagan, whose late husband had Alzheimer's, thanked the Senate for its vote.
"The pleas of so many suffering families have finally been heard," she said. "Time is short, and life is precious, and I hope this promising research can now move forward."
Bush's Unpopular Stance
If Bush does veto the stem cell bill, as he has declared he will, it will be his first veto. With it, he will take a stand against the House, the Senate, and -- according to polls -- around 60 percent of the American people
After a long, public, angst-filled debate, the president in 2001 banned the use of federal funds for research on new embryonic stem cell lines, saying he worried about a "culture that devalues life." He did allow research in progress on embryos to continue under a grandfather clause, but researchers say those stem cell lines are largely depleted or contaminated. The president estimated there were 60 of those lines; the actual number was closer to 20.
Asked today how quickly the president's veto pen would be dusted off and used, White House press secretary Tony Snow said, "It'll be pretty swift once you have a duly-passed bill."
He reiterated that Bush does not think it is appropriate for the federal government to finance research that destroys embryos.
"The president believes strongly that for the purpose of research it's inappropriate for the federal government to finance something that many people consider murder," Snow said. "He's one of them. … He thinks murder's wrong."
Incongruously, at the same time the White House has pledged to veto the embryonic stem cell research bill, calling it "murder," its communications shop has heralded the federal funding of the pre-existing stem cell lines that the president grandfathered in his 2001 executive order.
"President Bush Is The First President To Ever Fund Embryonic Stem Cell Research" a White House document states, also noting that "President Bush's Stem Cell Policy Has Made Federally Funded Stem Cell Lines Widely Available To Scientists."
At the same time, though, the White House insists that the destruction of those embryos constitutes "murder," and a White House policy statement pooh-poohs the research's promise, suggesting that "(e)mbryonic stem cell research is at an early stage of basic science and has never yielded a therapeutic application in humans" and that "the future of this field does not require a policy of Federal subsidies offensive to the moral principles of millions of Americans."
In 2004, likely fearing the possible political effect on swing voters of the stem cell debate, the president's re-election campaign was quite sensitive to any statement that he had banned funding for embryonic stem cell lines that did not mention the pre-existing lines grandfathered in.
The medical argument resonates with swing voters, and Democrats are highlighting the debate in key congressional races, such as the Missouri Senate race, where a statewide referendum on funding embryonic stem cell research brings the issue more attention than it's gotten in other states.
Many Republicans worry their voters are already divided on issues such as immigration and Iraq, and the stem cell issue will further add to that split.
"At this point, there are so many decisive issues that are causing Republicans to pull apart, you don't need another one right now," said GOP strategist Frank Luntz.
After all, even many who oppose abortion, oppose the president on this issue.
"Whether the president will veto this I do not know, but I know two people, Nancy Reagan and Orrin Hatch, will be holding hands and walking together to try and get the president not to veto this bill," Hatch, R-Utah, told ABC News, calling his position "pro-life."
Many anti-abortion legislators have been swayed by the argument that the embryos, which are unused and come from fertility clinics, would in every other case be disposed along with other medical waste. Of those hundreds of thousands of embryos that will be destroyed regardless, White House press secretary Snow said, "That is a tragedy, but the president is not going to get on the slippery slope of taking something that is living and making it dead for the purpose of research."
The president insists his mind is made up, and while research shows that supporters of stem cell funding have majorities in the House and Senate, they may not have the crucial two-thirds majority needed to override the president's very first veto.
Every Senate Democrat voted in favor of funding the research, with the exception of Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
Most Republicans voted against the bill, though the handful of GOP supporters of funding the research included Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, and Hatch and Robert Bennett of Utah, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Gordon Smith of Oregon, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Richard Lugar of Indiana, John Warner of Virginia, and John McCain of Arizona.
Z. Byron Wolf, Jennifer Duck and Cathy Porter contributed to this report.