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Where’s Their Sense of Decency?

Photo by AP/WideWorld

FOR ALL THE BAD RAP that Hollywood receives, its stars do the most good when they get behind medical causes. One star who was doing just that was the late Christopher Reeve. But the Republicans’ nasty prosecution of the presidential campaign has now taken to stealing Reeve’s legacy before the quadriplegic’s body is even cold. They are turning his dream of bettering the lives of the 2 million Americans living with paralysis into a political football.

L.A. Weekly has learned that, just a day after the actor’s death, one or more Republican senators put a surprise hold on the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act. The uncontroversial legislation had been expected to sail through committee and then the Senate as easily as it had the House of Representatives where it passed 418 to zero last week. Monday’s action was beyond cruel; it was like opposing Mom and apple pie.

Congressional sources confirmed to L.A. Weekly Tuesday that the hold was placed on the legislation from the Republican side of the aisle. Democratic committee members led by Senator Edward Kennedy are trying to find out which Republican senator or senators sandbagged S. 1010. The way the Senate system works, any senator can delay a bill without accountability because anonymity is assured.

“We’re shocked,” a source inside the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation told L.A. Weekly on Tuesday. “We had been told the bill was going to pass the Senate, but then the Republicans put a hold on the legislation. We heard it was because Chris has been too outspoken on the stem-cell issue. That was the trigger.

“So it would have passed if Chris hadn’t died.”

While the rest of the world was mourning Reeve’s tragic death and celebrating his heroic life, on Monday the Republicans cravenly played politics with the actor’s legislation by holding up the bill inside the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions — whose GOP members include chairman Judd Gregg (R–New Hampshire), who is running for re-election, and Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee), a heart surgeon. Last July, Reeve’s wife, Dana, made a point of traveling to Senator Gregg’s backyard and meeting with the local media in an apparent attempt to keep the pressure on Gregg to move Reeve’s bill through his committee. She told the Portsmouth Herald, “There are no dollars attached to it, and it is just a real ‘feel good’ piece of legislation. How could you not support it?”

Yet Senate Republicans found a way.

Reeve’s S. 1010 is identical to the already passed HR 1998, aimed at enhancing and furthering research into paralysis and improving rehabilitation and quality of life for those with spinal-cord injuries. Even so, one or more Senate GOPers made it a casualty of George W. Bush’s mission to confine stem-cell research to a paltry few and inadequate lines despite the fact that Reeve’s legislation had nothing to do with that issue. That’s worth repeating: The thespian’s bill had nothing to do with stem-cell research. Not only did the legislation have bipartisan co-sponsorship, Reeve’s foundation cited the support of Bush cabinet member Tommy Thompson, the Health and Human Services secretary.

But one or more Republican senators decided to piss on Reeve’s grave because the dead actor had dared speak out in support of opening up stem-cell research, which Dubya opposes in lockstep with his conservative Christian masters. As someone else with a conscience said to a cruel and reckless U.S. senator half a century ago, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

 

A GENERATION AGO, Rock Hudson’s death focused attention on the issue of AIDS and put it in new perspective. Now, Chris Reeve’s death (which I first reported via the Drudge Report on Sunday) looks to have the same effect by putting a well-known face to the issue of stem-cell research. And wouldn’t it serve the Republicans right if the actor were turned into a stem-cell martyr by their dirty double-dealings?

Just two days before his passing Sunday, the actor’s name was raised by Senator John Kerry during his defense of stem-cell research at the second presidential debate. And, in the days since then, and leading up to the third and final presidential debate, both Kerry and running mate John Edwards have been hitting the issue hard, again and again making the point that spinal-cord injuries and other ills could be helped through stem-cell research, which Dubya is limiting despite objections from the medical community. This is the sort of emotional appeal to swing voters that the White House is determined to stop. It doesn’t take a seasoned political operative to see that the passage of a Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act (or the passing of Christopher Reeve, for that matter) could not have come at a worse time for the Bushies.

On Monday night, Michael Manganiello, senior vice president of governmental affairs for the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, expressed outrage about the hold during an ABC News 20/20 special on the actor’s death. But Manganiello did not expressly accuse Republican senators of hijacking the measure.

Manganiello told Barbara Walters: “The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act had the opportunity today, a piece of it, to pass in the Senate. It passed in the House, 418-0, last week. I’m sorry to say that there’s been a hold put on the bill in the Senate. We’re not sure who’s put the hold on the bill. But the hold is because certain senators feel that Chris is just too outspoken with regard to the stem-cell issue. It’s very disappointing because it would have been a great tribute to Chris to have this bill passed.”

“This is a shame. The bill has nothing to do with stem-cell research. This is about research, rehabilitation and quality-of-life programs,” explains Dr. Douglas Landsman, director of individual research grants at the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.

In an attempt to identify who stopped S. 1010 in its tracks, I spoke to Gayle Osterberg, the Republican communications director for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. “I’m not sure,” she said. “As you know, a large number of bills were trying to get finished. This bill in the House was combined with a separate bill about also improving research on inflammatory-bowel disease, so that bill was passed and sent to the Senate. The committee attempted to pass it with unanimous consent. There was objection. I’m not sure who objected. That information doesn’t have to be shared.”

So who knows?

Osterberg said, “The person who objected, and the person in the cloakroom who took the call. It could have been one [person who objected]; it could have been more than one. So typically, if you’ve got a bill trying to get through, and there’s objection, you reach out to colleagues and work out those problems. Given the fact that there were a few remaining short days of session, we simply ran out of time.”

What was the reason for the objection?

“Not knowing who objected, I can’t speak to the reason for the objection.”

So the bill is dead?

“It is chairman Gregg’s intention to pursue it during the lame-duck session when we come back in November.”

Gregg, a two-term senator and former New Hampshire governor, surely isn’t looking to upset the religious right since he is the only Republican member of his committee running for re-election. He held a 4-to-1 fund-raising advantage over initial opponent New Castle Democratic state Senator Burt Cohen, who had an active campaign for over a year but then dropped out of the race. Because of that, Gregg is now up against a Democratic candidate who gives new meaning to the term long shot — “Granny D” Doris Haddock, a 94-year-old great-grandmother. According to the most recent Franklin Pierce College poll of 617 likely voters, Gregg leads Haddock 61 percent to 26 percent with only 13 percent still undecided.

Besides Gregg and Frist, the other Republican senators on the committee are Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Christopher Bond of Missourri, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, John Ensign of Nevada, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Warner of Virginia.

A month before his death, Reeve was quoted in Reader’s Digest as stating he advocated stem-cell research “because I think scientists should be free to pursue every possible avenue.” Asked if political decisions had slowed stem-cell research, he responded, “The religious right has had quite an influence on the debate. I don’t think that’s appropriate. When we’re setting public policy, no one segment of society deserves the only seat at the table. That’s the way it’s set in the Constitution. So debate all we want, hear from everybody. And then allow our representatives to weigh the factors and make laws that are going to be ethically sound, moral, responsible, but not the result of undue pressure from any particular entity.”