Deja Vu for a Bush Stem Cell Veto

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They say you always remember your first, and just in case he doesn't, Congress is making sure President Bush doesn't forget his veto of embryonic stem cell research.

This thorny scientific and moral quandary was the subject of his first nationally televised address, back in August 2001, when he imposed a ban on future federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. The issue also triggered his first veto, as he scuttled a bill last summer that would have eased that ban. And while Congress usually gets the message on presidential vetoes — no means no — a nearly identical embryonic stem cell bill that has passed the Senate sailed through the House Thursday, setting up yet another opportunity for the President to veto a measure that is increasingly popular both with the public and its elected representatives.

The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act would allow federal funds, the financial lifeblood of scientists and laboratories, to flow to embryonic stem cell research. The bill's proponents claim that these by-products of in-vitro fertilization may be able to help cure a wide host of diseases, including juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's (recall the hubbub over the stem cell ads that aired during last year's Senate race in Missouri starring Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's). Those opposed, including many on the right, regard it as the destruction of early human life. Others see it as a potential gateway to human cloning. Still, polls suggest that more than half of Americans support such research, a fact that Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, says makes the President's intransigence on the issue even more exasperating.

"He's just being stubborn," says DeGette (a co-leader of the House passage of the bill) of Bush's expected veto. "There is a national consensus on this...The only thing that is preventing it from becoming law is the President." While statements like that can usually be attributed to legislative bravado, DeGette points out that the Senate is one vote short of a veto override and the House is only about 30 votes shy of the same goal, evidence that the bill is making headway. "In January of this year, we picked up 16 votes in the House, two of which were pro-life Democrats who switched from no to yes," she says. "If he wants, [Bush] can continue to refuse to support this, in which case it'll become an election issue in 2008."

The top three Democratic candidates — Clinton, Edwards and Obama — all support stem cell research. On the GOP side both Giuliani and McCain do too. The conservative candidates — Romney, Brownback, Huckabee and likely candidate Fred Thompson — firmly oppose such research, which is anathema to their pro-life supporters. As Brownback said during the Senate's April vote on the issue, "This would say we can treat humans at the youngest age of their life continuum as property and that we will use Federal taxpayer dollars to destroy them and to do research on them."

With reports this week that Japanese researchers have reprogrammed mouse skin cells to function like stem cells, the entire ethical issue could soon become moot. Still, the issue may provide the opportunity for the first of a wave of veto showdowns during President Bush's last 18 months in office. "The congressional Republican leadership protected the President for his first six years and kept measures that he would veto from ever getting to the White House," says Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "That time is over."