Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette is the chief architect and co-sponsor of the stem cell research bill pending before Congress. Against all odds, it is scheduled for a hearing in the House of Representatives Tuesday, and likely to pass. President Bush has said he will veto the bill.

But that doesn’t reduce DeGette’s accomplishment. It is highly unusual for a Democratic sponsored bill to be granted a hearing in a Republican-dominated Congress. David Broder in the Washington Post explains how she did it.

Rep. Diana DeGette, a fifth-term Democrat from Denver, fought doggedly against the odds and lobbied every member on her side of the aisle to support the cause. More important, she found an ally in Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, who in his seventh term has emerged as the shrewdest politician among the small band of Republican moderates.

Together they mobilized nearly a majority of the House to sign letters last year urging Bush to allow federally financed research on more than the few “lines” of stem cells that were available to scientists when Bush issued his executive order on the subject back in 2001. Bush said that any embryonic cells that became available after his order came out could not be used for government-financed research.

DeGette and Castle approached House Speaker Denny Hastert at just the right time, when he needed support for the Republican military funding bill. He agreed to the hearing and a vote, with the sole condition being that if the bill lost, the sponsors wouldn’t bring it up again in this Congress.

The controversy has to do with the kind of stem cell research the Government will fund . President Bush and the pro-life crowd want to limit it to umbilical cord blood-cell research. The more than 200 bi-partisan supporters of DeGette’s bill want to allow research on embryonic cells that have been discarded, such as those discarded by fertility clinics.

DeGette and Castle deliberately framed their bill so as to minimize opposition. It would permit research only on the estimated 8,000 embryos that already are discarded each year as unneeded surplus by in vitro fertilization clinics around the country.

It would require informed consent by the donors and ban any buying or selling of the embryos. And, the sponsors say, it includes clear ethical guidelines for all such research — something that the government does not now provide. ….”If it’s going to be destroyed, people should have the right to donate them (cells) to cure life.”

Embryonic cell research has potential for finding answers and possibly cures for diseases such as Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, Lou Gherig’s disease and diabetes. A Korean study released last week “produced the first human embryos that were genetic matches for diseased or injured patients,” prompting the New York Times to opine :

The Korean achievement… makes the current debate in Congress over federal financing of stem cell research look pathetically behind the times.

The Times supports the DeGette-Castle bill:

Stem cells derived from cloned human embryos that are genetically matched to sick patients are potentially much more useful than stem cells derived from surplus embryos at fertility clinics, both for research and for potential treatments. Since cloned embryos carry the genetic makeup of patients with known diseases, scientists can study how those diseases develop from the earliest stages and can perhaps find drug treatments to interrupt the process. And if scientists ultimately succeed in converting the stem cells themselves into replacement tissues to repair damaged organs, those tissues would have the best chance of avoiding rejection by a patient’s immune system if they were genetically matched to the patient through therapeutic cloning.

….In the upcoming struggles over stem cell legislation, supporters of sound science must ensure that no ban is imposed on therapeutic cloning that would further shackle American researchers while scientists in Asia and Britain forge ahead.

Celebrities such as Nancy Reagan and Dana Reeves, widow of actor Christopher Reeve, have been passionate advocates of embryonic stem cell research:

“This is not a baby, it’s not an embryo, it is pre-embryonic. This is something that would not, once it was implanted, turn into a human being,” Dana Reeve said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

It’s ironic that the debate comes this week, at the same time as the fight over the nuclear option. It really brings home Bush’s ultimate goal — to pack the Courts with judges who believe religion trumps the Constitution.