Stem cell swap

Posted: Mar 31, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

 The budget was a priority for Republican leaders, and victory was not assured. Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay had agreed to spending caps pushed by the conservative Republican Study Committee to avert vote defections on the right. But with Democrats unified in opposition to the budget, no-votes by even a handful of liberal Republicans could have been disastrous.

 Castle's group had expanded to eight when it met with Hastert March 16, the day before floor action on the budget. The speaker informed them he would schedule a stem cell vote, probably before the July recess but probably not on the specific bill Castle co-sponsors with Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado.

 Hastert then told them this was no trade, that there was no quid pro quo required by their votes on the budget the next day. The sense of this was that the speaker had carved out deniability in what looked like blatant vote swapping. In fact, one of the eight liberal Republicans -- Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut -- did vote against the budget. But Castle and the other six supported it, as the budget passed by a scant four votes.

 Hastert won his budget but opened the door to a bitter fight on a party-splitting issue. Bush got a taste of this recently when he invited moderate-to-liberal Republican House members to the White House for a pep talk on Social Security reform. Castle responded that while Social Security means a lot to the president, stem cell research means much to him. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, a liberal on many issues who is ardently pro-life, then spoke up in opposition to Castle.

 The House Republican leadership has guaranteed that these passionate intraparty differences will be aired on the House floor, with corporate business getting into the act in favor of federal funding. Yet to be seen is whether pinning down votes to pass the budget was worth it.