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House Sustains Veto of Stem Cell Bill

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

President Bush was victorious in this week's fight over embryonic stem cell research. The House, last night, failed to override the first veto of the Bush presidency. That means there won't be any loosening of the limits on federal research funding that the president imposed five years ago.

But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, those who voted in support of stem cell research remain confident they'll prevail in the end.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

The president wasted no time making good on his veto threat against the bill passed by the House last year and the Senate Tuesday night.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: This bill would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others. It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect, so I vetoed it.

ROVNER: The measure would have expanded the number of cell lines eligible for federal funding, but only if they're from embryos left over in fertility clinics. To back up his point that every embryo is a potential person, Mr. Bush announced his actions surrounded by so-called snowflake children, who were adopted as embryos from that same excess fertility clinic supply.

The House wasted no time responding to the president. It debated and failed to override the veto less than three hours later. Backers of the bill like Massachusetts Democratic Ed Markey complained that the president's action will turn back the clock on research that scientists say shows promise in treating or curing dozens of chronic and fatal afflictions.

Representative ED MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): This will be remembered as a luddite moment in American history, when scientific progress was brought to a halt by those who put fear ahead of hope and ideology ahead of science.

ROVNER: But enough members backed the president to sustain his first veto. They included House majority leader John Boehner.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; House Majority Leader): No just society should condone the destruction of innocent life, even in the name of medical research. The president was right to veto this bill. It would be wrong for this House to overrule the president's decision.

ROVNER: Even with no policy change, though, Democrats are already predicting they can turn this defeat into victory in the November mid-term elections. It's already become an issue in several states with potentially vulnerable Republicans, including Missouri. New York senator Chuck Schumer heads the Senate Democrat's campaign committee.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Democracy is all about accountability, and there's going to be accountability in this issue.

ROVNER: Schumer says the reason is simple. Polls show a large majority of the public supports expanding embryonic stem cell research.

Sen. SCHUMER: Everyone knows someone who needs this bill. Everyone knows someone who has a child with juvenile diabetes. Everyone knows someone who has a parent with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, so we don't have to do much work on this. It's going to speak for itself.

ROVNER: But Republicans - even those who support expanding the research - say Democrats are overstating the impact of the debate. New Hampshire Republican Congressman Charlie Bass says Democrats claim just about every issue will help them.

Representative CHARLES BASS (Republican, New Hampshire): It's inappropriate to try to spin this issue as somehow being hurtful to Republicans in November across the board, because it won't be. It might hurt the president's popularity, but I would suggest that he's not on the ballot in November. So therefore, that's not really relevant.

ROVNER: The Senate, meanwhile - where Majority Leader Bill Frist broke with both the president and the Republican conservative base to support the stem cell bill - today is scheduled to take up a bill much more to conservatives' liking. It would make it a crime to take a minor across state lines for an abortion if the girl's home state has a parental notification or consent law.

The House has passed the bill several times, most recently a version in April of 2005. The Senate, however, has never fully debated the measure. Opponents say the timing of this first Senate vote in nearly eight years is no coincidence.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.