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President Bush to Veto Stem-Cell Bill

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And I'm John Ydstie, in for Steve Inskeep. President Bush is expected to use his veto pen today for the first time since taking office. The target is a bill expanding federal funding for research using stem-cells from human embryos. Congressional Republicans had also hoped to give the president a bill supporting other stem cell research that he could sign at the same time, but the House threw an unexpected snag into the plan.

NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

After two days of frequently passionate debate about the origins of life and death, the Senate acted according to script yesterday afternoon. First, it approved on back-to-back 100 to nothing votes two relatively non controversial stem-cell bills. But the key vote was on the third bill, overturning limits on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research imposed by Mr. Bush himself in 2001. The vote on that measure was 63-37, four short of the number needed to override the promised veto.

After the vote, Senate backers of the bill gathered to urge the president to change his mind and sign the bill. Among them was California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who said she's been besieged by patients suffering from diseases for which embryonic stem-cell therapy may hold a treatment or cure.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): And I can only say, Mr. President, don't make the first veto you have ever made the veto which dashes these hopes.

ROVNER: But that seems highly unlikely. Presidential spokesman Tony Snow said the president's position is not a political one but a moral one, since the research depends on the destruction of human embryos.

Secretary TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): 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.

ROVNER: But politics is playing a major role in this debate. Republican leaders knew President Bush would veto the bill expanding funding of embryonic stem-cell research, putting him at odds with most of the public. So they came up with two other bills he could sign, allowing him to claim to be pro-stem cell research.

Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback is sponsor of one of those bills. It would ban so-called fetus farming, in which embryos are gestated in women or animals before being harvested for their stem cells or other tissues. He says his measure represents an important step even if the practice isn't under serious scientific consideration.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): Somebody was saying, well, we weren't going to do it anyway, but that's what they said about human cloning when we started out on this debate; so you're going to ban fetal farming.

ROVNER: But the other supposedly non controversial bill failed to pass when it reached the House last night. It would encourage research into alternative ways to find stem-cells that show as much promise as those derived from human embryos. The attack on the bill was launched by sponsors of the bill facing the veto. Colorado Democrat Diana DeGette insisted she has substantive concerns about the bill, but she also admitted the effort was partly to deprive the president of some political cover.

Representative DIANA DEGETTE (Democrat, Colorado): No one will be fooled by this fig leaf. The tens of millions of people who suffer from diseases like Parkinson's, diabetes, paralysis, cancer, they know that this research holds hope and they know that 72 percent of Americans support this.

ROVNER: This snag is apparently a temporary one. The House, later today, is expected to bring the bill up for a second vote it will likely win. And any attempt to override the promised veto will almost certainly fail. But even if the policy doesn't change, the politics have Republicans on the defensive, says political scientist John Green.

Mr. JOHN GREEN (Senior Fellow, Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life): This is an issue where a large majority of the public seems to favor increased stem-cell research. And yet some of the key constituencies of the Republican Party -conservative evangelicals, conservative Catholics and so forth - of course, very strongly opposed to it. So it does put them at a bit of a bind.

ROVNER: Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life, says Republicans most at risk are those in states with large numbers of pro-research moderate voters.

Mr. GREEN: And for some moderate lawmakers that's a very important constituency. And so it's important for them to be on the right side of this issue. The danger for them, though, is that there are also conservative Republicans in those states who may either stay home in November or maybe even vote against them.

ROVNER: There's at least one thing most Republicans do seem to agree on: They'd like this debate to be over soon so they can go back to trying to divide Democrats.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

YDSTIE: State legislators are also grappling with embryonic stem-cell research. There's an overview at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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