Timing Favors Stem Cell Supporters

Opinion: As one leading U.S. senator throws support behind research, another senator is poised to link the issue with the Supreme Court nomination debate.

When Congress returns from its August recess, the Senate hearings on the nomination of Judge John G. Roberts to the Supreme Court will be the most-watched event. Lobbyists for a wide variety of groups have already started warming up their arguments, rallying supporters and raising money.

But another event in the U.S. Senate is going to be important and, like the Roberts nomination, could well turn into a show-down as Republicans try to sort out their position on the cutting-edge science of embryonic stem cell research.

With some drama, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) announced last month that he is willing to support the stem cell legislation in the Senate thats similar to whats been approved by the U.S. House.

This announcement, which was a break with the White House, means the legislation has a good chance of passing the Senate. President Bush, however, has said he will veto any such bill. And it is unlikely—for now—that there are enough votes in the House to override that veto.

Frists change of heart is a good example of how things might change in Congress. In some respect, Frist is playing catch-up with his announcement of support for stem cell research legislation. The margins vary but polls show that voters favor either state-sponsored programs or the use of federal dollars to do such research.

Republicans are less favorably inclined, but Democrats and independents—those are folks who could vote for either party—say the legislation is a good idea.

Thats borne out at the state level. Since Californian voted to approve a $3 billion bond issue to fund embryonic stem cell research in the state, others have followed. New Jersey ($150 million), Connecticut ($100 million) and Illinois ($10 million) have all approved funding for such research. Its no coincidence that each of those states has large research facilities—Princeton University (New Jersey), Yale (Connecticut) and the University of Chicago (Illinois) —within in the borders.

For most of these states, the related fruits of research —the discoveries, intellectual property and ancillary benefits—are as important as the research itself. Embryonic stem cells may indeed hold the keys to cures for diseases like Parkinsons, diabetes and cancers, but the discoveries scientist make as they do that research and those experiments are often as important as the "assigned" work.

That makes stem cell research an economic issue as much as anything else. Thats not an argument you hear made in political circles, however. And its one that President Bush has not addressed in his decision to ban all research using human embryos. Nor have many of the legislations proponents—outside California—made this argument.

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Instead the debate has been one over when and how life begins. Which takes us back to the U.S. Senate and Roberts. Much of the debate over his suitability for the Supreme Court will center on his approach toward a number of social issues, among them abortion. This is where Roberts nomination and stem cells intersect.

The debate over Roberts suitability for the Supreme Court is in the hands of someone who cares very much about federal funding for stem cell research: Sen. Arlen Specter, who is well-known for his independent points of view on a number of issues as well as his willingness to speak out—sometimes harshly against those who oppose him.

Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, is ill with cancer and, in part because of the research he believes would be possible, has sponsored legislation to give federal funds to embryonic stem cell research. Specter—who has lost his hair from the chemotherapy—is also in charge of the Roberts hearings.

He couldnt ask for a better platform to air his views than the sometimes free-ranging Senate confirmation hearings and press conferences that accompany them.

Does that mean stem cell legislation is now a slam-dunk for passage? No. But it does take a program that enjoys support from voters and places it front and center before the public in a unique and dramatic way. That puts pressure on the White House and on Congress at a less-than-opportune moment: As it face the beginnings of the 2006 election cycle.

eWEEK.com technology and politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog. She can be reached at mailbox@chrisnolan.com.

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