WASHINGTON -- A stubborn Senate voted yesterday to ease restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, ignoring President Bush's threat of a second veto on legislation designed to lead to new medical treatments.
The 63-to-34 vote was shy of the margin that would be needed to enact the measure over presidential opposition, despite gains made by supporters in last fall's elections.
"Not every day do we have the opportunity to vote to heal the sick," said Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, less than 100 days following a tough 2006 campaign in which the stem cell controversy played a particularly prominent role.
"It is a noble cause," McCaskill added.
"We're going to use federal money, indirectly or directly, to destroy embryos," countered Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, echoing Bush's argument against the measure. Coburn said that claims of imminent scientific breakthroughs from embryonic stem cell research are unsubstantiated and that adult stem cells have already been shown to be useful in a variety of cases.
The House, which passed similar legislation earlier in the year, is expected to adopt the Senate's version in the next several weeks .
"This legislation crosses a moral line that would use taxpayer dollars to destroy human embryos, and that's a moral line the president said he would not cross. And for those reasons he would veto this bill as well," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said not long before the vote.
Capping two days of debate, the Senate also appeared ready to approve a rival measure backed by Republicans. It supported research in adult stem cells.
The Senate's action marked the latest act in a drama that blends science and politics on an issue that affects millions of disease sufferers and their families.
"It's extremely frustrating to go through this Kabuki dance a second time with the president," said Peter Kiernan, head of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which funds research.
"The one thing we know is we will outlast him."
Stem cells are created in the first days after conception. They are typically culled from frozen embryos, which are destroyed in the process.
According to the National Institutes of Health website, scientists have been able to conduct experiments with embryonic stem cells only since 1998.
The embryonic stem cells have the ability to transform into a "dazzling array of specialized cells," the website says -- the property that scientists and others say offers the potential for the development of treatment for diseases as varied as juvenile diabetes, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's.
There was no federal funding for the work until Bush announced on Aug. 9, 2001, that his administration would make it available for lines of stem cells that were already in existence. Elected with the strong support of abortion foes and other conservatives, he said at the time that his decision was designed to balance concerns about "protecting life and improving life."
He also limited the funds to cell lines derived from embryos that were surplus at fertility clinics and that had been donated from adults who had given informed consent.
The bill would permit funding for research on embryonic stem cells regardless of the date of their creation, so long as they were donated from in-vitro fertilization clinics, they would "otherwise be discarded," and donors gave their approval.