WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives voted today to ease restrictions on federal financing for embryonic stem cell research, thus setting up a showdown with President Bush, who has vowed to veto the measure because he says it would promote destruction of life.
The 238-to-194 vote in favor, far short of the 290 needed to override a presidential veto, sends the issue to the Senate, where an identical measure is pending. Stem cell research has considerable support in the Senate as well. Its chief sponsor is Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, who heads the Senate subcommittee that controls federal financing for medical research.
Fifty House Republicans broke with President Bush to vote with 187 Democrats and the chamber's sole independent, Bernard Sanders of Vermont, in favor of the bill. Fourteen Democrats joined 180 Republicans in voting against it. The House's action, and the likelihood of approval in the Senate as well, sets the stage for the first veto to be cast by President Bush, who reiterated his opposition this afternoon to the current legislation.
Hours before the House vote, Mr. Bush said that despite the potential for medical breakthroughs, that the use of human embryos in the studies was too high a cost to pay.
"This bill would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life," the president said at the White House. "Crossing this line would be a great mistake."
"Research on stem cells derived from human embryos may offer great promise, but the way those cells are derived today destroys the embryo," said the president who was speaking before a group of parents who had children using embryos that had been created for other couples using fertility treatments. President Bush has pledged to veto the bill passed this afternoon because he says it would destroy life to save life.
His remarks on the day the House was scheduled to vote underscored Mr. Bush's personal commitment to holding the line on embryonic stem cell research.
Proponents of the research, including the former first lady Nancy Reagan, argue that embryonic stem cell study could lead to cures for such diseases as Alzheimer's, which afflicted President Ronald Reagan, and Parkinson's and even spinal cord injuries.
The legislation that Mr. Bush has vowed to veto would reverse the president's ban on using federal money to conduct new embryonic stem cell research. The embryonic stem cells, the starting point for every tissue in the human body, would come from live human embryos scheduled to be discarded at fertility clinics. The co-sponsors of the bill are Representatives Michael N. Castle, Republican of Delaware, and Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado.
House passage of the embryonic stem cell bill was a rare direct challenge to President Bush, who has consistently threatened to veto any legislation that tried to widen federal support for research using stem cells from human embryos.
Representative Charles Bass, a New Hampshire Republican who backed the bill, said beforehand that "this is not about life, this is about saving life."
Supporters of the embryonic stem cell legislation had predicted that they had enough support for passage. But they were unsure whether they could pull together the required two-thirds votes to override a presidential veto.
In 2001, President Bush prohibited federal financing of research on embryonic stem cells, except work on the limited number of cell lines developed before his decision.
Addressing the nation in August 2001, Mr. Bush said: "I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life and death decision has already been made.
"This allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life."
Last week, Mr. Bush reiterated his position on the Castle-DeGette bill. "I made it very clear to Congress that the use of federal money, taxpayers' money to promote science which destroys life in order to save life is - I'm against that," he said. "And therefore, if the bill does that, I will veto it."
The second bill, which is backed by the president and has wider bipartisan support, would provide $79 million to establish a network of blood banks to help make stem cells from umbilical cords discarded after birth available for patients and for research purposes. But researchers say that stem cells created from the blood of umbilical cords grow into fewer types of mature cells, and are therefore less valuable to cure diseases.
While the legislation regarding umbilical cord stem cells is expected to pass easily, the embryonic stem cell legislation is likely to have a much more difficult time.
"The Castle bill is both divisive and, to put it bluntly, dismissive of human life at the embryonic stage," the majority leader, Tom DeLay, said from the House floor today. "This is one of those issues that have no easy answers."
But Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat, said the prospect of curing fatal diseases overrode other concerns.
"How many more lives must be ended or ravaged?" Ms. Maloney said. "How much more unimaginable suffering must be endured until government gives researchers the wherewithal to simply do their jobs?"
Representative James R. Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat, who was paralyzed at age 16 after a gun accidentally discharged in a police station and severed his spinal cord, said he supported the embryonic stem cell legislation despite opposing abortion.
"My life as a quadriplegic is certainly filled with challenges and obstacles," he said. "It's motivated me to help create a culture that values and protects life from its beginning to its end. For me, being pro-life also means fighting for policies that will eliminate pain and suffering and help people enjoy longer, healthier lives and to me, support for embryonic stem cell research is entirely consistent with that position."
Stem cells can develop into nearly any kind of cell in the human body because they have not yet gone through the differentiation process in which cells take on a specific function, like brain cells or skin cells. Backers of the research say that stem cells could eventually be used to grow new heart cells, for instance, to repair damage from heart disease.