Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- The quiet of Easter recess on Capitol Hill was interrupted last week by stunning news that Republican leaders of the House had changed their position on allowing a vote for federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research opposed by President Bush. The untold story is that a vote swap of epic proportions was behind this development.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert agreed to schedule the vote for this summer only after Rep. Michael Castle of Delaware, leader of a small band of liberal House Republicans, threatened to withhold votes on the closely contested budget resolution just before the recess began. Hastert asserted he was not yielding on stem cell research to save the budget, but that was the reality inferred by shocked conservatives.

 The stem cell swap changes the climate on an issue menacing Republican solidarity. With Hastert removing the House roadblock, legislation funding human embryos for medical research could pass both the House and Senate despite opposition from Republican leaders and the White House. Bush almost certainly would have to cast his first veto.

 Hastert gave the green light to Castle and his associates March 16, the day before the House voted on the budget. No press conferences or news releases heralded the event. The first news of this was a March 25 story by reporter Rick Weiss in the Washington Post revealing that "the House leadership has agreed to allow a floor vote" on the bill. Foes of cloning human embryos for stem cells were devastated.

 The development can be credited mainly to Mike Castle, who may be the most influential House member without a leadership position. A former governor of Delaware who has declined nearly certain election to the U.S. Senate, Castle's leverage comes from heading a few liberals who sometimes provide the difference between victory and defeat in the narrowly divided House.

 Castle, who combines passion for issues with parliamentary cunning, gathered together six like-minded colleagues who belong to two liberal Republican organizations: the Tuesday Group and the Main Street Partnership. They discussed withholding their votes in support of the budget unless Hastert yielded on stem cell research. That possibility was clearly conveyed to the leadership.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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