Posted: Aug. 3, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle does not know how many more Augusts he will have to hold press conferences at the Alfred I. du Pont Hospital for Children, the world-famous institute in Rockland, to talk about embryonic stem cell research.

He was here last year on Aug. 9, 2005, to mark the anniversary of President George W. Bush's policy announcement in 2001 to all but snuff out federal participation in the dawning of this scientific endeavor and to plead for a political miracle to advance the research that holds out the promise of a medical miracle.

Castle, a seven-term Republican, came close to his political miracle. In an acrobatic display of legislating against his own party's leadership, he floor-danced his stem cell bill through the U.S. House of Representatives last year and the U.S. Senate last month to plop it into the unwelcoming presidential lap.

Bush made the bill his first veto, and Castle made history. "A new line was added to my obituary," he quipped.

The veto was July 19. About two weeks later and six days before the fifth anniversary of Bush's policy, Castle was back at the A.I. hospital with a new idea for pressing ahead.

Together with U.S. Rep. Diana L. DeGette, a Colorado Democrat who co-sponsored the stem cell legislation, Castle has written to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to ask it to put its considerable wealth and power behind the research.

The foundation, which recently received an infusion from billionaire Warren Buffett, is dedicated to eradicating diseases, and embryonic stem cells are regarded as potential building blocks for treatment for a number of fatal or debilitating disorders, such as ALS, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, arthritis and spinal cord injuries.

"We just hope this will tickle their fancy," Castle said.

Not that Castle is abandoning the political avenue. "We will pursue the legislation next year," he said.

The problem is, it could be even harder. If the Republicans retain the House majority, Castle has no guarantee his leadership will let the bill come to the floor again. If the Senate stays Republican, there will be a new majority leader to replace U.S. Sen. William H. Frist, who is not seeking re-election to run for president, and his replacement is unlikely to support the legislation as Frist did.

Patience may help in the long run. Bush's position that the use of embryos for scientific research is immoral is not shared by almost all of the top candidates for president in 2008 -- not John McCain or Bill Frist on the Republican side or Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Mark Warner (or Joe Biden) on the Democratic side -- and a new federal policy could come from a new White House.

"We also can wait two and a half years. There will be a new president," Castle said.

Surprisingly, Castle also had his first feeler recently that the Bush administration may be willing to bend a little. It came from a presidential aide, and it might come to something, or it might not.

"It was the first glimmer of any kind of opening," he said.

Castle has taken some sniping from Dennis Spivack, the Democrats' endorsed congressional candidate, over the presidential veto. Spivack, like Delaware's Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Thomas R. Carper, supports the stem cell bill and declared its rejection was Castle's own fault because he took a lead in backing Bush for re-election.

"Mike need look no further than himself for the blame," Spivack said in a press release. 

Castle remains undeterred -- both in his re-election campaign and his commitment to stem cell research. He expects to keep returning to the A.I. hospital along with local officeholders like state Rep. Deborah D. Hudson and state Sen. Liane M. Sorenson, Republicans who are backing companion legislation that has stalled in Dover, to promise that he will continue doing what he can.

"Every August," Castle said.

He goes to the institute because its staffers are the ones treating children who are coping with the devastating afflictions that the research potentially could help, and they come out by the score, some of them in their hospital scrubs, to urge him on.

Among the children, there is Allie Deitz, the 12-year-old daughter of Newark restauranteur David Deitz. Allie, who has juvenile diabetes, spoke at the press conference.

"I have gone to visit Congressman Castle in Washington, D.C. I showed him how much it hurts to prick my fingers and to test my blood, and how much it hurts to give myself shots of insulin," she said. "I would like to have a cure for juvenile diabetes."

Allie was teary and brave, and people were wiping their eyes.

"I'm just happy I'm not running against you for the United States Congress," Castle said.