''Let's pass a real ban on human cloning, not this phony bill,'' Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey said in opposing the legislation in the Democratic-led US House of Representatives yesterday.
The vote was 204-213 as 31 Democrats joined 182 Republicans in voting against it. A two-thirds majority would have been needed to pass the bill.
The White House reaffirmed President George W Bush's opposition to human cloning. It had threatened to veto the measure, noting the bill would still allow creation of embryos for stem-cell research which requires destruction of human life.
''Most of us in this body are opposed to human cloning,'' said Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, adding if the bill was subjected to hearings a consensus could likely be reached.
But Democrats tried to ram it through on the eve of anticipated final congressional approval by the House of a Senate-passed bill to expand federally funded embryonic stem cell research.
Bush has threatened to veto this bill too. The House and Senate are not expected to muster the needed two-thirds majorities to override him.
Embryonic stem cell research has been the center of an ethical and political maelstrom and was a hot issue last year when Democrats won control of Congress.
Shortly after Bush took office in 2001, he allowed federal funding on 78 stem cell lines then in existence. Most turned out to be of limited use to scientists, who have pressed Congress to expand federally funded research.
Virtually all scientists who want to use cloning technology to make human embryos say they do not intend to make babies, but instead to have a source of human embryonic stem cells -- the body's ultimate master cell. They hope to use these cells to better understand and combat debilitating diseases.
The defeated House bill would have made it unlawful to use cloning technology to create human babies. Violators would have faced up to 10 years in prison and up to million in fines.
''The most effective way to prevent human reproductive cloning in the United States is to pass a federal prohibition,'' said Rep Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat and a chief sponsor of the measure.
Rejecting concerns about the bill's limitations, DeGette said, ''The bill bans human reproductive cloning. Nothing more, nothing less.'' The National Right to Life Committee, a leading anti-abortion group, urged lawmakers to defeat the bill, denouncing it as ''deceptive legislation.'' REUTERS JK BST0538