WASHINGTON (AP) – In five- and-a half-years in office, President Bush has issued 141 veto threats and zero vetoes. His showdown with Congress over embryonic stem-cell research is about to change that.

Prompting the president’s first veto: The Senate’s passage Tuesday of a bill to expand federal funding for stem cell-research that holds promise in the drive to cure diseases. Bush likens such research to abortion. “The president is not going to get on the slippery slope of taking something living and making it dead for the purposes of scientific research,” said White House spokesman Tony Snow. “He feels honor-bound to veto it.”

Across the Capitol, the House late Tuesday handed a surprise victory to supporters of embryonic stem cell research, rejecting a related measure that would have instead encouraged adult stem cell studies. The House was expected to reconsider the measure on Wednesday.

The fate of the embryonic stem cell bill remained unpredictable during two days of emotional debate.

That measure, passed by the House last year, cleared the Senate on Tuesday 63-37 – four votes short of the two-thirds majority required to override a veto. Nineteen Republicans voted for the bill, including Majority Leader Bill Frist, several staunch abortion opponents – among them Maine Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins – and loyal White House allies.

Republican presidential hopefuls, meanwhile, split 2-3. Frist, R-Tenn., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., voted for the bill, taking a position favored, according to polls, by 70 percent of Americans. Voting “no,” in support of Bush and politically key social conservatives, were White House aspirants Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and George Allen of Virginia.

The split in the GOP ranks reflects the lack of agreement in the party over whether taxpayer dollars should be spent on research that tests the ethical bounds of scientific advances.

The bill would lift Bush’s 2001 ban on federal funding for new embryonic stem-cell research, a practice many scientists say carries great promise in the search for cures that afflict millions of people.

Opponents liken the process to abortion because a days-old embryo is destroyed when the all-purpose stem cells are extracted.

“We must draw the ethical line at research that destroys human life,” said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri.

The legislation had momentum from powerful and famous Republicans. Nancy Reagan, whose husband, former President Reagan, died of Alzheimer’s, launched a last-minute lobbying effort on the bill’s behalf, issuing a gently worded statement that alluded to the prospect of the research being canceled.

“With this important vote in favor of embryonic stem cell research (H.R. 810), the pleas of so many suffering families have finally been heard,” she the statement, which was issued after the Senate vote. “Time is short, and life is precious, and I hope this promising research can now move forward.”

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger also weighed in.

“Mr. President, I urge you not to make the first veto of your presidency one that turns America backwards on the path of scientific progress and limits the promise of medical miracles for generations to come.”

But the most powerful Republican of all left no doubt about his intent to veto the bill. “The simple answer is he thinks murder’s wrong,” Snow said.

The veto was likely to come today in private, followed by a House override attempt that was expected to fail.

That chamber fell 50 votes short of the two-thirds majority required to override when it passed the same bill last year, 238-194. Fifty House Republicans voted for the bill, in defiance of Bush and many of their party leaders.

The House meanwhile, killed the adult stem cell bill.

, sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. While the Senate approved that measure unanimously, the House’s 273-154 vote fell 12 votes short of the two-thirds majority required for passage under the rules. The House may reconsider the bill Wednesday and try to pass it with a simple majority.

Bush is expected to sign a a third bill, to ban “fetal farming,” the prospect of raising and aborting fetuses for scientific research. That measure passed both houses unanimously.

Embryonic stem cells are essentially master cells, able to morph into all the cell types found in the body. If scientists could learn to control these cells and coax them into becoming specific types on demand, they could grow replacements for damaged tissue. The idea is to use this process – still theoretical – to cure or treat a raft of diseases and injuries, from diabetes to Alzheimer’s and spinal cord damage.

How fast the science for both adult and embryonic stem cell research proceeds depends on how much money the federal government is willing to spend, and for which kind. Supporters of the embryonic stem cell bill say the engine of public funding would greatly accelerate cures and treatments.

The House last year fell 50 votes short of a veto-proof margin when it passed the same embryonic stem cell bill, 238-194. Fifty House Republicans voted for the bill in defiance of Bush and many of their party leaders.

Republican leaders in the House planned an override vote as early as Wednesday evening, confident that Bush’s veto of the embryonic stem cell bill would be sustained.

On the Net:

Information on the bills, H.R. 810, S. 3504 and S. 2754, may be found at http://thomas.loc.gov

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