Senator filibusters stem cell backer’s appointment

After more than three years of ever-growing controversy over research on embryonic stem cells, most Missourians expected the issue to be put to rest by the ultimate trial of democracy: last November’s statewide vote.

The initiative, known as Amendment 2, protects all stem cell research allowed by federal law. It was approved by 51.2 percent of voters, a margin of slightly more than 50,000 votes.

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But that slim margin has emboldened opponents of such research, who have introduced legislation to repeal the initiative and to criminalize any attempt to grow stem cells in the laboratory by cloning human cells.

The latest effort came last week when Sen. Matt Bartle, a Lee’s Summit Republican and the legislature’s leading opponent of cloning research, tied up the Senate for an entire day fighting the appointment of Warren Erdman to the University of Missouri Governing Board.

The battle had many Republicans shaking their heads because Erdman, a senior vice president with railroad company Kansas City Southern, has sterling Republican credentials and is among the most prominent civic leaders in Kansas City.

Erdman was chief of staff for Republican U.S. Sen. Kit Bond and worked in the governor’s office for both Bond and Republican John Ashcroft. He is chairman of Kansas City’s downtown development agency and serves on several corporate and civic boards.

Bartle said he opposed the nomination primarily because of Erdman’s support for research on early stem cells and Amendment 2. Bartle said Erdman’s zealousness would lead him to try to steer the university’s public funding into such research, which Bartle contends destroys a form of nascent human life.

“Warren Erdman is tied very strongly to those who want to advance human cloning research,” Bartle said in early January. “He is being considered for a position with discretion over how the University of Missouri uses public funds. Therefore, his strong ties raise serious concerns.”

But it became plain early in Bartle’s filibuster that part of his opposition was more personal. Bartle contended that Erdman supported Bartle’s opponent in last summer’s Republican 8th District primary in eastern Jackson County. The campaign pitted Bartle against Bob Johnson, a former state representative and former state senator who was a strong supporter of research on early stem cells.

Erdman denied any involvement in Bartle’s race. But Bartle said he had evidence to the contrary.

“If he was engaged in (opposing my re-election), I believe he would be equally zealous about deciding how to spend public tax money in advancing the agenda in favor of human cloning,” Bartle said. “He is a passionate proponent of human cloning research and he would be deciding how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money and in state tax money.”

When Erdman’s appointment came up for confirmation in the Senate, Bartle rose to object. The time was 10:28 a.m. on Thursday. In a remarkable exhibition of endurance and creativity, Bartle held the Senate floor for 17 hours in a nearly solitary act of defiance toward Gov. Matt Blunt who appointed Erdman and fellow senators who supported him.

Bartle spoke about his children, his fitness regimen, his running times in two marathons, Big 12 football, the fashions of fellow senators and even the “$19.95 Calvin Klein jeans at Costco – they fit like a dream.” He read blog items about his own filibuster – anything to keep speaking and delay a vote on Erdman’s appointment.

About 3:25 a.m. Friday, an exhausted Bartle finally gave up the floor. Other senators quickly called for a vote and the confirmation of Erdman and 22 other appointees was completed.

The procedural motion to approve all the appointments was approved 27-2, with only Sen. Harry Kennedy of St. Louis County joining Bartle in opposing Erdman’s nomination.

In the end, the legislative session’s first showdown over stem cell research ended in a clear victory for the governor, who supports stem cell research that involves cloning human cells. Blunt had to know it was a must-win situation. If a single senator had been able to thwart the governor’s appointment, virtually every initiative would have become hostage to the whims of Bartle and his allies in the anti-abortion camp.

But Bartle’s dramatic display sounds an ominous tone for the rest of the session. Bartle lost this skirmish, but he signaled that he and his allies are girded to fight research on early stem cells at every step, regardless of the last year’s statewide vote.

Kit Wagar is the statehouse correspondent for the Kansas City Star. He can be reached at 816-234-4440 or by e-mail at [email protected]