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Congress poised to challenge Bush on pro-family issues

WASHINGTON (BP)–Attempts to advance policies opposed by pro-life and pro-family organizations are expected to resume now that Congress has reconvened after a month-long recess.

The Senate and House of Representatives returned to work Sept. 4 with the war in Iraq the center of attention, but the Democratic leadership also appears prepared to challenge President Bush with votes on such controversial proposals as funding destructive embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) and expanding so-called “homosexual rights.”

For the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and other opponents of such legislation, the president’s veto power is their surest weapon.

The Senate has yet to hold a vote to override Bush’s June veto of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which seeks to weaken the president’s policy blocking federal funds from being used in stem cell research that destroys embryos. The measure would provide funds for research using stem cells taken from embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics. Extracting stem cells from embryos destroys the days-old human beings. The president’s 2001 rule permits funds for embryonic research only on stem cell lines already in existence at the time of the announcement of the policy.

Defenders of Bush’s policy may have just enough votes to prevent a successful override in the Senate requiring a two-thirds majority. The Senate voted 63-34 for the measure in April. It appears only three of the four senators who did not vote in April will support an override, which would leave the bill a vote short, unless a senator who originally voted against the bill switches or does not vote.

In the House, meanwhile, challengers of the presidential rule lacked 35 votes for a super-majority when the legislation was approved in June.

ESCR advocates are trying another approach as well. The Senate Appropriations Committee passed in June a proposal by Sen. Tom Harkin, D.-Iowa, that would grant government money for studies of stem cell lines derived from embryos over nearly the last six years. The measure would gut Bush’s policy, authorizing federal funds for research on stem cells from embryos destroyed in private work between Aug, 9, 2001, and June 15 of this year.

Passage appears highly unlikely, however. The full Senate has yet to vote on it, and the overall bill would have to be agreed to by the House. Also, Bush has promised to veto any bill that “weakens current Federal policies and laws on abortion, or that encourages the destruction of human life at any stage.”

On another hotly contested issue, the White House announced in early August that Bush would veto legislation to expand hate crimes protections to homosexuals and transgendered individuals, even if he has to reject a Department of Defense authorization bill.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D.-Mass., has filed a hate crimes measure he is sponsoring as a possible amendment to the defense authorization bill, and it appears the Senate has enough votes to approve it by a comfortable margin. The House of Representatives approved a hate crimes bill in May with a 237-180 vote, a margin noticeably short of a veto-proof majority.

Current hate crimes law protects traits such as race, religion and national origin, but the bill’s opponents say the new legislation would grant protection based on lifestyle. They also warn it would move federal law toward punishing thoughts and beliefs, since the motivation of a person charged with a hate crime would have to be evaluated. In addition, some critics warn it could lead to suppression of speech that describes homosexual behavior as sinful.

Supporters of the bill contend it would only cover violent criminal conduct.

The House-approved bill would authorize the U.S. attorney general to provide assistance to state and local officials in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes, as well as expand the categories covered by the law to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” among others. The legislation says a hate crime is one “motivated by prejudice based on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of the victim, or is a violation of the state, local, or tribal hate crime laws.”

“Sexual orientation” includes homosexuality. “Gender identity” is a “person’s innate sense of gender,” which may be different than his sex, according to the website of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest homosexual activist advocacy organization. Transgender is an umbrella term for “people who live all or substantial portions of their lives expressing an innate sense of gender other than their birth sex,” according to HRC. The transgender category includes transsexuals and cross-dressers.

Here are some other matters Congress is addressing, or may address, before adjourning for the year:

— Both the Senate and House versions of the Foreign Operations spending legislation would have the effect of repealing the Mexico City policy, which requires international organizations receiving U.S. family planning funds to refrain from performing or promoting abortions. A Senate amendment to restore the Mexico City policy failed in a 53-41 vote Sept. 6.

— The House has passed legislation that removes protections in a government health insurance program for unborn children and the elderly. Both the Senate and House approved in early August the reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), but neither version includes a five-year-old Bush administration rule that enables states to include the unborn in the coverage. The House bill also contains a provision that would have the effect of barring the elderly from supplementing government payments for Medicare health insurance with their own money. This raises the likelihood of healthcare rationing and involuntary euthanasia, the National Right to Life Committee has warned.

— Leslie Southwick, a nominee to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, awaits a Senate confirmation vote. His nomination, heavily criticized by left-leaning advocacy groups such as People for the American Way, moved out of the Judiciary Committee when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D.-Calif., joined nine Republicans in support.

— The House has increased funding for ethical stem cell research, but the Senate has yet to take action on such a proposal. The House approved in July an additional $11 million in funds for research on stem cells from umbilical cord blood as an amendment to the spending bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into tissues and other cells, providing hope for the treatment of numerous afflictions. Embryonic research has yet to treat any diseases in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.

Unlike research using embryos, extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources — such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow -– has nearly universal support. Such research has produced treatments for at least 73 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. These include spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and sickle cell anemia.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington Bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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