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Veto clash looms for stem-cell bill

Majorities in Congress support a bill that eases research limits. But are there enough votes to override a Bush veto?

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It's been five years in the making. It pits the promise of life-saving medical advances against the precept that human life – even in its earliest stages – is sacred. And it is poised to produce the first veto of George W. Bush's presidency.

So it is no surprise that the stem-cell debate opening in the Senate Monday has been choreographed as carefully as a classical ballet – all but the ending.

Republican and Democratic leaders have agreed to allow three bills related to stem-cell research to come to the floor of the Senate: 12 hours of debate, no amendments, and votes to start at precisely 3:45 p.m. on Tuesday. In a sign of how high the stakes have become, once the Senate has voted, no other bill or amendment relating to the issue will be allowed for the rest of the 109th Congress.

One bill, which has already passed the House in May 2005, eases the presidential limit on the number of embryonic stem-cell lines that can be used in federally funded research. Another promotes research using other forms of stem cells that do not require destroying human embryos. And a third aims to preempt research on embryos from "fetal farms," where human embryos are created for research.

All three are expected to pass and land on the president's desk this week. Mr. Bush is expected to sign the second two bills into law. But the first one is all but certain to draw his first veto. Then, with nearly 3 in 4 Americans in support of the vetoed bill, the question is: Will the GOP-controlled House and Senate muster the will and the votes to override the veto?

It may be possible for the Senate to reach the 67 votes needed for an override, but it's unlikely in the House, say aides on both sides of the aisle.

"We need 290 votes [to override a presidential veto], and hope springs eternal, but that's a fairly heavy lift," says Rep. Diana DeGette (D) of Colorado, a sponsor of the House bill, who says that a veto would put the ideology of the religious right ahead of the health of millions of Americans. "I am outraged that President Bush is considering using his first veto on legislation that holds the key to helping millions of Americans suffering from diseases like Parkinson's and diabetes," she adds. "This research is far too important to be used as a political wedge."

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