Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- The White House was poised last Tuesday to make the best of a bad political situation. While President Bush would cast his first veto on a popular embryonic stem cell research bill, the political sting was supposed to be diminished by him simultaneously signing an alternative measure. But that scenario was ruined when the second bill was defeated in the House.

The president's aides were stunned. The bill directing the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to pursue research that would not kill human embryos, as the vetoed bill would, passed the Senate Tuesday, 100 to 0, and there was no warning of failure in the House. So, instead of the contemplated signing ceremony Wednesday, Bush directed the NIH to proceed with research anyway -- an indication the defeated legislation was not needed.

Last week's convoluted congressional developments, though raising questions of life, death, morality and religion, reflected election-year politics. Seasoned Democratic political operatives regard stem cell research as the most important issue affecting the 2006 elections. They believe Bush's sustained veto will alienate normally Republican voters in swing congressional districts, winning Democrats control of the House. The president's aides, while disagreeing with this analysis, planned to mitigate the political fallout by what amounted to a simultaneous sign-and-veto ceremony.

Why, then, would the usually partisan Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid go along with the Republican plan? Because it is extremely difficult to get anything done in the Senate, and Reid was willing to pass what he described as a meaningless bill to avoid obstruction and filibuster on the major measure.

But Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, lead Democrat on stem cell research, recommended that the alternative bill be opposed as a diversion. Even so, a clear majority of the House favored it. The killer was opposition by Rep. Michael Castle, Delaware's only House member, who leads the liberal faction of moderate Republicans (mostly from the Northeast). While small in number, Castle's followers frequently represent the House's balance of power.

Such was the case last week. If the alternative bill (sponsored by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland) went through the regular procedure, it would be subject to a "recommittal motion" by Castle just before passage attempting to combine it with the Castle-DeGette bill originally passed by the House. That version surely would pass. So, Republican leaders avoided this disaster by trying to pass the Bartlett bill under a procedure that barred amendments but required a two-thirds vote.

Robert Novak

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

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