INSIDE (THE BELTWAY) SCOOP – JENNIFER ZEITZER Created by on 09/03/2010
The relative quiet that blanketed Capitol Hill this month was disrupted on August 23rd by a Federal District Court ruling barring federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research (see related story below). Given that nearly all members of Congress are outside of Washington at the moment, the reaction to the judicial decision was limited to a few comments from key stem cell supporters, and it is not clear what legislators will do once they return to work the week of September 13th. A Roll Call story published last week suggested that the House could vote on a stem cell research bill authored by Representatives Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Mike Castle (R-DE). Although the article did identify a specific piece of legislation that may be voted on, one possible option is HR 4808, the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act of 2009, which would require the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to conduct and support research that utilizes human stem cells, including embryonic stem cells, as long as they were derived from human embryos donated from in vitro fertilization clinics, created for the purposes of reproductive treatment and in excess of individual needs, and written, informed consent was provided by the donors. The bill language essentially codifies the policy established by the Obama Executive Order on stem cell research that was issued in 2009. Earlier versions of this legislation were passed by Congress and vetoed by President George W. Bush. A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) commented that “We are discussing our options,” but offered no additional information.
Representative DeGette subsequently issued a statement stating “Our nation already lost valuable time over the last decade, when we could have been bringing our massive resources and expertise to bear, expanding stem cell research and helping 100 million American patients living with devastating and debilitating diseases.” Other press reports mentioned that a DeGette spokesperson also commented on the pending legislation, noting “She has always known that we must codify the ability to conduct this critical lifesaving research, and the Congresswoman believes that this ruling has now created a greater sense of urgency.” In addition, Representative Michael Castle (R-DE) issued a press statement confirming that he remains committed to supporting stem cell research.
From the other side of the Capitol, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) told a New York Times reporter that “I think the public is on our side on stem cell issues and swing voters are on our side. This is very open to a legislative solution.” Senate Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) also announced that a hearing on stem cell funding has been scheduled for September 16th and released a statement stating that "This ruling should be appealed and I fully believe that it will be overturned. Embryonic stem cell research offers hope to millions of Americans who are suffering from debilitating and life-threatening diseases, and it must be allowed to proceed." FASEB will issue an action alert asking scientists to contact their members of Congress to urge them to approve legislation that will allow continued federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
The stem cell matter is likely to add additional complexity to the September legislative agenda, which is already crowded with high priority items that will have to be addressed in a very short time frame. Both the House and Senate are expected to recess around October 8th to return to the campaign trail for the final weeks prior to the mid-term elections. Although the Congressional leadership has not announced a specific schedule, lawmakers could address several issues including a small business jobs bill that stalled in the Senate prior to the summer break, an initiative to boost manufacturing efforts in the U.S., a food safety bill, the fiscal year (FY) 2011 defense authorization bill, border security legislation, and a “continuing resolution” to extend funding for government agencies beyond September 30th (the end of the current fiscal year). It is not clear if Congress will attempt to debate any of the FY 2011 spending bills that were passed by the Appropriations Committees earlier this summer.
Legislative issues that are not resolved in September could be addressed later this fall. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) informed his colleagues in early August that the chamber will return to Washington for a “lame duck” session in November. According to Reid’s office, the Senate will be in session November 15th – 19th, break for Thanksgiving between November 22nd – 26th, and return to the Capitol on November 29th for an unspecified period of time. The House leadership has not released a schedule beyond the previously established October target adjournment date, nor have they indicated if there will be a “lame duck” session after November 2nd.