-- Despite a packed legislative calendar, quashing a recent court ruling that bans federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research has suddenly risen to the top of Congress' pre-election to-do list.
Rep. Diana DeGette of Denver said Democratic leaders in the House are looking favorably on the idea of moving a bill quickly to the floor in time for a vote before Congress recesses Oct. 8.
The Senate appears poised to act as well -- the issue suddenly propelled by the confluence of a District of Columbia district court ruling and Democrats' desire to frame the election as a stark contrast between themselves and Republican rivals.
"The fact that people are running against these hard-right Tea Party candidates really will help them because the vast majority of Americans are for stem-cell research," said DeGette, a longtime champion of the research who has seen legislation she's written on the issue pass twice only to be vetoed by then-President George W. Bush.
But it is the recent ruling by a federal judge in Washington, D.C., that has turned the issue into what DeGette called an "emergency situation," potentially endangering tens of millions of dollars in new research approved since President Barack Obama reversed a Bush-era prohibition last year.
DeGette said she and her allies will push to quickly adopt the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which she introduced again in March and would effectively codify the executive order the judge overturned.
Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., introduced a similar bill in the Senate on Monday, and aides said a vote there was increasingly likely. That could potentially send legislation to the president's desk even as the U.S. Court of Appeals -- which temporarily stayed the lower court's ruling -- mulls over the issue.
Both bills address concerns by Judge Royce Lambert that Obama's executive order violated a 1996 congressional amendment known as Dickey-Wicker. The ruling, which startled researchers throughout the country, put in jeopardy at least $78 million in National Institutes of Health funding that had recently been approved.
The Dickey-Wicker amendment bans use of federal funds for research in which human embryos are destroyed or damaged, but the Justice Department argued that doesn't apply to current research projects using embryos from private fertilization clinics that would otherwise be discarded.
"Cloud over research"
By nullifying the government's distinction, the ruling could make all scientific work using human embryos illegal, including work on a limited number of stem-cell lines that had been allowed under Bush, researchers fear.
"It has really put a cloud over research that was being conducted at the present time," said Dennis Roop, director of the stem-cell center at the University of Colorado Denver.
Roop's lab uses mainly adult stem cells not affected by the ruling, but he called embryonic stem-cell research "the gold standard" and said the ruling has sent a shudder through the research community.
"With the temporary appeal, they probably have a little more comfort, but there is still the cloud that they could be completely shut down at some point," Roop said.
Embryonic stem-cell research has long been controversial among conservatives, but it holds promise for the treatment of devastating diseases, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Under the Bush administration, stem-cell research in the United States was mostly limited to labs financed entirely with private money, which excluded many top universities and severely limited the scale.
But polls show that the research is supported by a significant majority of Americans, and Democrats see the issue as focusing on the downsides of a potential Republican agenda.
Even with a packed legislative calendar, the issue has caught the eye of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who Tuesday also backed votes on two other wedge issues -- gays in the military and immigration.
"You've got a lot of members of the caucus who would rather be taking good votes instead of bad votes, and this certainly would be a nice way to frame the election," one senior Senate aide said.
Criteria for projects
DeGette said she has been working with House lawyers to ensure that the language in her bill would put to rest any concerns over Lambert's ruling.
The bill establishes eligibility criteria for stem-cell projects that can receive federal funding, including requiring that the human embryos were donated from in vitro fertilization clinics and otherwise would have been discarded.
It also requires the director of NIH to set up ethical guidelines for researchers and bans the use of federal funding for human cloning.
"The good news is that this bill has already been well-vetted by Congress. We've passed it twice with solid bipartisan majorities," DeGette said.
"I just think this is one of those emergency situations that Congress really needs to address and we need to do it this month," she said.