WASHINGTON, May 24 (UPI) -- Legislation to ease federal stem-cell restrictions looks likely to pass in the House, but a similar bill in the Senate -- which also appears to have enough votes to pass -- could become stymied by Republican leadership who may not allow it to come to a vote, congressional sources told United Press International.
"We're positive that we have a majority in the Senate" that favors the bill, Adam Elggren, a spokesman for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a co-sponsor of the legislation, told UPI. "Senator Hatch is confident we've got close to 60, if not 60 already."
Hatch's bill, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, has 32 co-sponsors, but a Senate aide, who requested anonymity, told UPI the Republican leadership "is not eager to move on this," so legislation supporters will have to overcome that opposition to get the measure through.
This might involve attaching the stem-cell legislation to a popular bill that has broad support or finding a way to work with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to allow it to come to a vote on its own.
The House and Senate bills would allow federal funding to be used for research involving surplus embryos from fertilization clinics that otherwise would be discarded.
President George W. Bush said he will veto the legislation if it passes through both chambers.
Asked if Frist would block the bill from coming to a vote, his spokesman Nick Smith said, "No decisions have been made when this bill would come to the floor."
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a longtime opponent of embryonic stem-cell research, has said he would filibuster to prevent the legislation from passing the Senate.
Brownback's office did not return a call from UPI.
Brownback has introduced legislation -- the Human Cloning Prohibition Act -- that would ban all forms of cloning, including therapeutic cloning, a technique closely aligned with stem cell research that allows for a patient's own cells to be cloned to generate tissues that are a genetic match to the individual.
Embryonic stem cells can give rise to all the cell types in body and scientists think the research has the potential to yield insights and treatments for various diseases. The research is controversial, however, because it requires the destruction of a human embryo.
President Bill Clinton put a policy in place before he left office in 2001 that would allow federal funds to be used on surplus embryos from fertilization clinics. Before the National Institutes of Health could dole out the first grants, however, Bush early in his term ordered a review and announced the current restrictions on Aug. 9, 2001.
Bush's policy prohibits federal funds from being used on stem cells derived after that date, but many of the 78 stem-cell lines that met this criteria have turned out either to be unviable or unavailable to researchers. There also are concerns all of them are contaminated with animal molecules, which would make them unsuitable for use in human patients.
Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a consortium of patient advocacy groups that support stem-cell research, said he thinks the Hatch bill has enough votes to pass the Senate.
"We believe that it does," Tipton told UPI. "As with the House, some elements of the leadership are against it, but also as in the House, there is considerable support among Republicans."
Tipton said he is confident supporters of the research "can work with leaders of the Senate and the administration to find ways" to get the legislation passed.
"As more and more countries make more scientific advances in stem cell research and get farther ahead of the United States, it will demonstrate that the policy as it is just is not sustainable and that will put pressure on the Senate to do something about it," he added.
The research has advanced considerably since Bush's policy was first announced. Experiments in animals have indicated cells derived from embryonic stem cells can cure paralysis in rats and therapeutic cloning has been shown to cure Parkinson's disease in mice.
Just last week, Korean researchers announced they had used therapeutic cloning in human patients to produce embryonic stem cells, a breakthrough that suggests the research may be more efficient and feasible than previously thought for routine use.
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail email@example.com