By NEDRA PICKLER
After waiting 5 1/2 years to make good on a veto threat, President Bush used his first to underscore his politically risky stand against federal funding for the embryonic stem cell research that most Americans support.
Some political strategists say Bush’s high-profile stance on such an intensely emotional issue could hurt the party’s congressional candidates in November in heartland places like Missouri.
"This bill would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others," Bush said after rejecting calls that he change his policy. "It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect."
The veto puts some Republicans in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between the wishes of their conservative backers who consider embryonic stem cells to be early human life and those in greater numbers who want to use the cells for research that could one day save lives.
"I think history will look very unkindly on this veto," said Rep. Chris Shays, a moderate Connecticut Republican who helped pass the legislation. "I believe the president is very sincere in vetoing this bill, but I think that he’s been captured by his own ideology and taking his ideology to an extreme."
"I think it will hurt" the party in November, said Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., who supported the veto. But he said Bush and Republicans who were allied with him were acting on moral principle and not politics. "I’m willing to roll the dice on that."
In vetoing the bill Bush made good on a promise he made in 2001 to limit federally funded embryonic research to the stem cell lines that had been created by the time.
Republicans working to maintain majorities in Congress say stem cells will not be the biggest issue on voters’ minds in November and that the economy, war and terrorism will be more important. However, Democrats warned that voters would not forget Bush’s veto.
"Everyone knows someone who needs this bill," said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the chairman of the Democratic senatorial committee. "We don’t have to do much work on this bill. It’ll speak for itself."
There could be a silver lining for Republicans. The president’s opposition to embryonic stem cell research is a popular move among his most conservative supporters — the same bloc that has been angry over Bush’s immigration policies.
Richard A. Viguerie, a conservative direct-mail fundraiser, said Bush is in "serious trouble" with his base.
"If he were not to veto this legislation, you could see the administration come unraveled very quickly," Viguerie said. "It would really wreak havoc with his ability to govern with the conservative base there."
The hope among Republican strategists is that the stem cell veto will reinvigorate conservatives to get to the polls in the midterm, when turnout is traditionally lower.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee plans to fund ads on the issue in the fall as Democrats work to take control of the House with the November elections. Leading targets could be Republicans who are running in suburban districts, such as Peter Roskam near Chicago and Mike Fitzpatrick of the Philadelphia area.
Strategists on both sides say the debate could have the biggest impact on the Senate race in Missouri, where a measure protecting embryonic stem cell research is expected to be on the ballot.
Democrats chose their candidate in Missouri, State Auditor Claire McCaskill, to deliver last weekend’s national radio address touting the potential lifesaving cures of the research. Incumbent Republican Sen. Jim Talent struggled over his position for months before announcing in May that he would oppose the ballot measure.
Talent’s position put him on the side of anti-abortion and religious groups but against the state’s biggest business and medical groups, which have lined up behind the initiative. The state’s Republican governor supports it, as does former Sen. John Danforth, an Episcopal priest who lost a brother to Lou Gehrig’s disease and has taped ads touting the measure.
"I think a lot of people are going to vote on this issue," Danforth said. He bristled at the suggestion that it could motivate conservatives and help the party.
"I served in elected office as a Republican for 26 years," he said. "Is somebody telling me I don’t count? My brother doesn’t count? What counts is that religious theory that says what takes place in a lab dish takes precedent over my brother?"
© 2006 The Associated Press