Bush Set to Use First Veto on Stem Cell Bill
Despite Divided GOP, President Says He Will Not Ease Restrictions on Federally Funded Research


By Michael Abramowitz and Chuck Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; A04

Since his inauguration in 2000, President Bush has gone out of his way to avoid an overt confrontation with Congress. He has been helped by the strong support of GOP leaders, who have made sure that he has been sent bills to his liking, and he has been willing to swallow some legislation -- a campaign finance package, for instance -- to avoid a political confrontation.

But Bush is unwilling to tolerate deviations from his policy restricting federal funding for stem cell research that he set out in his first prime-time television address in August 2001. If all goes as scheduled later this week, he will do something he has avoided for nearly six years: veto a bill.

"The president feels he made the right decision, and a principled decision, and he's not going to be swayed by the fact that he may not have the votes on Capitol Hill," said Jay Lefkowitz, a New York lawyer who helped Bush craft his position while a staff member at the White House.

By refusing to budge from his position, the president also appears to be reaffirming his bona fides with religious conservatives who make up an important part of his political base, even while he differs with other prominent Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and former first lady Nancy Reagan.

"He's been a clear man of his word," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a leading opponent of expanded stem cell research, adding that Bush wanted to limit the use of stem cells to those cases in which the life-and-death decision had been made. "He has not been willing to expand that and to thus use taxpayer dollars to kill young human life. And I believe he's going to stand by that position."

Democrats said they think Bush is handing them a potent political issue for the fall elections, because stem cell research has become an important subject in several marquee congressional races. Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) expressed amazement that Bush has chosen the stem cell bill for his first veto, given polling showing that Americans overwhelmingly support the research.

"I think this is going to have some real repercussions around the country," Harkin said.

Scientists view embryonic stem cells as promising in the treatment of paralysis and many diseases because the cells can re-create themselves and have the potential to turn into any tissue or organ. Colonies or "lines" derived from adult stem cells are much less versatile, scientists say.

The legislation in question, which the House has passed, would allow federal funding for research on stem cell lines derived from frozen embryos that are stored at fertility clinics and slated for destruction. The president's policy allows for federal funding of research only on stem cell lines that existed as of Aug. 9, 2001, the date he announced his policy. Bush said such a policy was reasonable because additional embryos would not have to be destroyed to create stem cells.

Eager to soften the impact of Bush vetoing a measure that other prominent conservative Republicans support, the GOP leadership is holding votes on two other measures to give Bush stem cell legislation he will sign. One of the bills would encourage research into creating stem cell lines without destroying human embryos. The other would ban the creation of a fetus solely for the purpose of destroying it and harvesting its body parts.

Even so, the one expected refusal would mark the first time the president has wielded a veto pen, putting him far behind his predecessors Bill Clinton (38 vetoes in two terms), George H.W. Bush (44 in one term) and Ronald Reagan (78 in two terms). To a large degree, the lack of a veto reflects the simple fact that Republicans have controlled Congress almost the entire time Bush has been in office and they have been reluctant to send him legislation that might be vetoed.

"If he was vetoing a lot of House-Senate Republican bills, it would make us look chaotic and un-unified," said Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), vice chairman of the House Republican Conference. Administration officials said they have also been able to press Congress to change bills to their liking, such as when lawmakers trimmed the size of a recent emergency spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan after Bush threatened a veto.

"By working closely with Congress -- and by threatening vetoes when they were called for -- discretionary spending has been kept in check and there hasn't been a need to veto a spending bill," said Scott Milburn, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget.

But some fiscal conservatives complained that the absence of presidential vetoes reflects a lack of interest by Bush in challenging Congress to reduce costs in large spending bills that are outside the regular budget process -- such as highway, energy and agriculture bills that were full of expensive projects. As long as Bush was receiving support for his big agenda items such as tax cuts and the Iraq war, he went along with the bills, they said.

"He just decided not to spend the political capital in fighting Congress on spending, and Congress basically agreed to go along with his biggest priorities," said Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth. "That's gotten us to the point where spending has gotten out of control."

The Senate opened debate yesterday on the three stem cell bills, all of which appear likely to pass today. The Senate debate was overshadowed by the near certainty that the House bill will not become law because the House will fall short this week in its bid to override Bush's promised veto. A veto override, which requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers, would not be tried in the Senate if it fails in the House.

Much of the Senate debate centered on whether embryos awaiting destruction at fertility clinics are humans. Brownback, a chief opponent of the House bill, said they are.

"What we're talking about in this debate is the use of embryos, young humans, as raw material" in medical research, he told reporters. Thousands of such embryos are discarded annually, he acknowledged, but they should be protected from use in medical research just as death-row inmates are. He urged couples desiring children to "adopt" such embryos, implant them in the woman's womb and bring them to full term.

Frist, a heart-transplant surgeon, said he believes human life begins at conception, but he defended medical advances that might derive from embryos that are "100 percent" certain to be destroyed and have no hope of being adopted.

"We have learned that fewer than the anticipated number of cell lines have proved suitable for research," Frist said in a floor speech, "and I feel that the limit on cell lines available for federally funded research is too restrictive."