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Of Stem Cells and Election-Year Politics

Editor's Note: While Chris is covering the Crisfield, Md. Clambake today, washingtonpost.com editors will be posting a few items of interest on The Fix. Here is our take on the stem cell vote in the Senate.

Tuesday's Senate vote on a bill that would expand embryonic stem cell research is interesting when viewed through the lens of the 2006 midterm elections. Of the 33 Senators facing reelection in 2006, 24 voted in favor of the bill, while nine were opposed.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, locked in a competitive reelection battle, was the only Democrat to oppose the bill. During his campaign, Nelson has gone out of his way to associate himself with President Bush, who remains popular in the Cornhusker State.

Nelson's vote on the stem cell bill conforms with the president's position. Bush is expected to issue his first presidential veto later today on the grounds that harvesting stem cells from embryos is wrong because embryos represent the beginning of human life. This morning, Nelson's campaign Web site trumpeted an endorsement by Nebraska Right to Life, which the site says "reaffirms Senator Nelson's pro-life credentials."

Missouri Sen. Jim Talent (R) stuck quietly to his guns and voted "no" on the bill. Talent has been slammed from two sides on the issue as his campaign opponent, state auditor Claire McCaskill, rakes him over the coals for opposing embryonic stem cell research, an issue that has proven popular with the Missouri electorate. On the other side, pro-life groups have criticized him for being too timid in his opposition.

In November Missourians will vote on a ballot measure that would amend the state's constitution to allow for all embryonic stem-cell research permitted under federal law. As Jonathan Darman reports in the current issue of Newsweek, Talent originally kept silent on the amendment until pressured by Missouri pro-life groups to oppose it. Wednesday morning, Talent's campaign Web site had no apparent mention of the Senate stem-cell vote.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who will retire from the Senate this year, famously broke with President Bush and came out in full support of the bill, penning an op-ed in for The Washington Post explaining his position. Columnist David Broder pointed out that the three Republicans vying for Frist's seat have come out against embryonic stem-cell research, while Rep. Harold Ford, the Democratic candidate, voted for it in the House -- a vote that will surely be used against him by his opponent in the general election.

Proving that the stem-cell issue does not divide along traditional "pro-life" and "pro-choice" lines, a number of traditional abortion opponents voted in favor of the bill. This includes two senators not up for reelection this year -- Sens. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah). And it includes two senators facing easy reelection races this fall -- Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Of the Senators known to be mulling a 2008 presidential bid, only Republicans George Allen (Va.) and Sam Brownback (Kan.) voted against the bill. Sens. Hillary Clinton (D), Russ Feingold (D), Bill Frist (R), John Kerry (D), and John McCain (R) all voted in favor of it.

Editor's note -- an earlier version of this post left out potential presidential candidate Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). As our readers pointed out, Bayh is indeed considering a 2008 presidential bid and voted in favor of the embryonic stem cell research bill.

By washingtonpost.com Editors  |  July 19, 2006; 11:32 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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