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Congress's Default on Stem Cells

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Published: April 11, 2005

House G.O.P. leaders, who in the past quashed proposals to moderate President Bush's restrictions on federal financing for stem cell research, have finally given approval for a floor debate and vote on the issue sometime in the next few months.

The substance of any proposal remains a big question for G.O.P. leaders thus far addicted to the marching orders of militant conservatives. But there are already sizable numbers of lawmakers who favor moderation if they're allowed to vote their best judgments. Increasingly, they echo fears reverberating in statehouses of a brain drain luring the best scientists to more liberal programs in California, New Jersey and a half-dozen other states actively considering financing stem cell research.

Mr. Bush severely restricted federal financing and opposed therapeutic cloning, the most promising research avenue, in a policy hailed by religious conservatives opposed to embryonic stem cell research. California quickly jumped into the leadership vacuum with a robust $3 billion research program. Polls show that the public is, two to one, in favor of the research's enormous potential for treating intractable diseases. Small wonder that Massachusetts and Maryland lawmakers have just voted to approve stem cell research roles for their states.

Proponents warned that if their states did not take action, they would be laughingstock losers in the emerging science and business of biomedicine. These warnings appear to have increasing traction in Congress. But it remains to be seen whether the Republican leadership will opt for honest debate and action or another simplistic circus staged for the religious right.

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