Saturday, March 26, 2005

A Bit of (Cautious) Optimism?

Judging from a couple of stories over the past two mornings, there may be a compromise in the works that will end in the relaxation of current restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. The Washington Post broke the story Friday, and the New York Times plays catch-up this morning. The reason for the parenthetical caution in the title of this post is the slight but clear difference in the articles' headlines: "House Leaders Agree to Vote on Relaxing Stem Cell Limits" yesterday; "Republicans Discuss Vote on Stem Cell Policy" today.

The backstory: Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, a well-known House moderate and proponent of loosening rules on federal funding for stem cell research, has introduced for the second year in a row the "Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act", along with Democrat Diana DeGette. The bill already has 183 cosponsors in the House, and would likely pass the chamber by a wide margin if brought to a vote. Last year, in typical fashion, the House leadership refused to hold committee hearings or a vote on the legislation (as per Speaker Hastert's ridiculous quasi-rule that only bills that garner near-unanimous - i.e. everyone but the moderates - support from Republican members will come to the floor).

The Post article, by Rick Weiss, reveals that after Castle and others pled their case last week before Hastert, DeLay and Whips Roy Blunt and Eric Cantor, the leadership "concluded we should move forward in some way," Castle is quoted as saying. Aides to Blunt and other leaders, however, made clear that the deal with Castle to have a vote this year on some form of stem cell legislation did not mean that they would necessarily bring Castle's bill as such to the floor. This is the point of today's Times article, which states that important caveat more clearly.

Even assuming that House leaders have negotiated with Castle in good faith (as assumption I'm not sure anyone should be willing to make) and Castle's bill does pass in the House, its future is uncertain. The votes for a similar measure are almost certainly there in the Senate, but there are no guarantees that Frist & Co. would allow a vote to proceed there this year.

And then there's the fellow at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, whose spokesmonkeys responded to questions about this legislation by saying that Bush opposes the Castle bill. Would he wield the veto pen for the first time in his presidency should moderates gain a Congressional victory?

I wouldn't bet against it. He can't run for reelection, and has therefore little reason to continue pandering to those who oppose minimal relaxation of federal limits on stem cell research (Castle's bill would simply allow work on stem cells from "leftover embryos created in efforts at conception and destined to be discared", according to the Times). And yet the kowtowing goes on.

So, while the 'agreement' between Castle and House leaders offers up at least a glimmer of hope that compromise may pull through, let's just say I'll believe it when I see it.


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