Key Democrat Says Leadership Will Act Quickly On Stem Cell Research

Democrats are strongly considering swift legislative action to allow embryonic stem cell research to continue in the wake of a district court judge’s ruling that abruptly stopped all research.

Rep. Diana DeGette, who has championed stem cell research measures for years, briefed House Democrats via phone yesterday on the surprise ruling that experts told us puts scientific research back to a more restrictive level than it was under President George W. Bush.

DeGette (D-CO) told TPM in a phone interview last night that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of leadership are “very concerned” and she believes legislation could be passed as early as next month.“The labs, work, everything else would have to come to a standstill,” DeGette told TPM. “This is going to have to be addressed very very quickly. It’s gone up to the top of the list for leadership and it will happen shortly after we get back.”

DeGette confirmed that the ruling took everyone by surprise, and considers it a “serious problem” because scientists will have to stop all research. That’s one reason the Justice Department plans to file a stay and appeal the injunction, spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler confirmed to TPM. She said the motions will likely be filed this week. Advocates hope to stay the judge’s injunction and allow research to continue until there’s a final ruling.

DeGette said that when President Obama issued a March 2009 executive order lifting the Bush-era ban on funding by issuing new guidelines for the National Institutes of Health, she felt Congress needed to codify them just in case. Even though she wasn’t aware the ruling was forthcoming, DeGette started speaking to freshman Democrats in July about the issue to get a sense of their support for stem cell research since they haven’t already taken the votes.

“Most of them said it would either be good for them or neutral,” come November, DeGette said.

She noted the original bills — vetoed twice by Bush — passed with large bipartisan majorities. It even earned 68 votes in the Senate. She calls it a “positive wedge issue” since public support for “ethical” stem cell research is very high and said it will help Democrats.

“I don’t think it’s a problem for the elections,” DeGette said.

From a general election perspective, it’s a little more dicey. But DeGette said she’s spoken with several Republicans and with Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL), her key bipartisan partner on the issue for years, about a bill to codify Obama’s new guidelines. But it’s a question whether Kirk, now a Senate candidate in a competitive race for Obama’s old seat, will keep his same position that earned him moderate credentials.

DeGette said the big question is whether Congress should pass new legislation or take action to modify the Dickey-Wicker budget amendment that prohibits taxpayer dollars from going to anything that involves the destruction of a human embryo.

As we reported yesterday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) will hold hearings Sept. 16 in his Labor-HHS Appropriations subcommittee. Leadership aides told TPM today that the Justice and Commerce committees are examining the issue on the House side.

Additional reporting by Ryan J. Reilly