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Stem Cell Bill Vetoed; Override Effort Fails

Janet Hook

President Bush, defying a bipartisan majority in Congress and a strong current in public opinion, exercised the first veto of his presidency Wednesday by blocking an expansion of federal support for embryonic stem cell research that he considered immoral.

Within hours of Bush's announcement, a House effort to override the veto fell 51 votes short of the required two-thirds majority, effectively killing the bill for the year. The vote for the override was 235 to 193, with 51 Republicans siding against the president.

Bush said the veto was not a setback for science but rather a victory of conscience, as taxpayers should not pay for research that destroys human embryos — even in the service of obtaining stem cells to develop potential cures for disease.

"This bill would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others," Bush told a crowd of supporters, including children born of the type of fertility clinic embryos that would have been used for research under the bill. "It crosses a moral boundary that our society needs to respect, so I vetoed it."

The bill Bush rejected would have eased restrictions that he imposed in 2001 on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Supporters of the loosened rules decried the veto, saying it had dashed the hopes of American scientists and patients and their families.

"Vetoing this bill is one of the greatest mistakes of his presidency," Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said.

The veto, and Congress' failure to override it, were landmark moments in Bush's presidency that testified to the extent and limits of his sway halfway through his second term. Republican defections on the issue underscored the weakening hold Bush has on his party.

But a president in his final years still holds veto power, which allowed Bush with a stroke of a pen to leave a significant mark on American science and research ethics, shaping the flow of federal dollars that are a cornerstone of U.S. science.

The most remarkable thing about Bush's decision may not be that he vetoed this particular bill, as he had repeatedly threatened to do. More significant may be that it took so long in his presidency before he vetoed anything.

Every president after James A. Garfield has issued at least one veto, and Garfield served less than a year, in 1881. Thomas Jefferson was the only two-term president to issue no vetoes.

Many Republicans say Bush's extraordinarily long veto-free period is a tribute to how far the GOP-controlled Congress has gone to accommodate him — authorizing the war in Iraq, giving him almost every tax cut he proposed, meeting his overall budget targets.

But many conservatives, frustrated by the run-up in federal spending in recent years, say it also is a tribute to how unwilling Bush has been to confront Congress on its big-spending ways.

The president's uncompromising defense of his 2001 stem cell policy, despite changes in the scientific and political landscape over the last five years, is in keeping with a leadership style that his admirers call principled and his detractors call bullheaded.

"It reaffirms a dimension of his political self-definition as a strong leader who does what he says he'll do and sticks with his guns," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas and a longtime Bush-watcher.

The veto came less than 24 hours after the Senate cleared the bill on a bipartisan 63-37 vote. Bush's action, and the quick House vote that followed, were signs of Republican eagerness to get the divisive issue off center stage.

Even as he vetoed the bill, Bush signed legislation passed unanimously by the House and Senate to address the fears of some critics that scientists were aiming to create "fetal farms" in which human fetuses would be grown for their organs and tissues.

Proponents acknowledged that the law was preemptive, because the procedure was not known to have been practiced on human fetuses.

The stem cell controversy has centered on research that is progressing around the world but is narrowly funded by the U.S. government. It entails destroying human embryos to obtain stem cells, which are thought to be able to develop into any type of cell in the body. Many scientists believe this research may lead to medical insights and cures for diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's.

That hope has prompted many scientists and patients' advocates to call for looser limits on federal funding.

In August 2001, in the first televised speech of his presidency, Bush announced that scientists for the first time could use federal funds for embryonic stem cell research — but only on cells that already had been drawn from embryos. Bush said that limitation was aimed at making sure federal funding did not prompt scientists to destroy additional human embryos to obtain stem cells.

At the time, Bush's position was seen as a skillful compromise between social conservatives in his party who wanted no funding for such research, and scientists and patients' advocates who sought a more robust program.

Since then, pressure has mounted on Bush and Congress to ease the rules. The cell lines eligible for research under Bush's policy turned out to be fewer and less productive than initially believed. Scientists have created new embryonic stem cell lines, but they may not be used in federally funded experiments under Bush's policy.

Increasingly, stem cell research has gained acceptance from antiabortion Republicans — including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) — who abandoned the view that destroying embryos in the course of the research is tantamount to abortion.

The bill sent to Bush would have allowed federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells no matter what date they were obtained. As under Bush's policy, the cells would have had to come from frozen embryos that were going to be destroyed.

Even with that limitation, Bush argued, the bill would upset the balance he tried to strike in 2001 "between the needs of science and the demands of conscience."

Bush announced his veto, to a standing ovation, in the East Room, a chamber reserved for some of the most important White House occasions. The crowd included patients who had been treated for diseases with "adult" stem cells derived without destroying embryos. It also included children born of embryos that had been created at fertility clinics but were given to other patients rather than destroyed.

Their presence was intended to underscore Bush's argument that embryonic stem cell research is neither ethical nor necessary.

"These boys and girls are not spare parts," Bush said of those children. "They remind us what is lost when embryos are destroyed in the name of research."

He noted that his veto would not prohibit privately funded research on embryonic stem cells, but said that taxpayers should not finance procedures that many consider murder.

Several states have passed their own funding for embryonic stem cell research. In 2004, Californians approved Proposition 71, which allocated $3 billion for research — but the money has since been tied up in legal challenges. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who supports stem cell research, asked Bush to reverse his position and sign the bill.

In vetoing the legislation, Bush said that "if this bill would have become law, American taxpayers would for the first time in our history be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos, and I'm not going to allow it."

As the House opened its debate on whether to override the veto, DeGette challenged Bush's assertion, noting that the bill would have allowed research only on embryos that were going to be discarded.

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) echoed the president's words when he responded: "There is really no such thing as a 'spare embryo.' Every man and woman in this chamber began life as an embryo identical to those destroyed through the process known as embryonic stem cell research."

All the Democratic members of California's House delegation voted to override Bush's veto, as did nine of the 20 California Republicans.

The Republicans voting to override were: Brian Bilbray of Carlsbad, Mary Bono of Palm Springs, Ken Calvert of Riverside, David Dreier of San Dimas, Darrell Issa of Vista, Jerry Lewis of Redlands, Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita, Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach and Bill Thomas of Bakersfield.