WASHINGTON—Senate Republican leader Bill Frist's surprising decision to defy President Bush and endorse expanded federal support for stem cell research Friday dramatically changed the politics of an issue that poses the potential for lifesaving medical breakthroughs against deep ethical reservations.
The views of Frist, an accomplished heart surgeon, on medical issues carry significant weight with his fellow senators. As the Senate's top Republican, his stance is also bound to draw attention to the schism on the issue within his party.
Despite his stance, any legislative effort faces huge hurdles, not least President Bush's vow to veto any bill that extends embryonic stem cell research beyond the limits he imposed in 2001.
Before any such legislation even gets to the president, Frist must work out a deal with other senators—sure to be difficult—to bring it to a vote. With the Senate in recess for the next five weeks, no action is expected before September.
Frist himself may have introduced another hurdle by insisting that a bill the House of Representatives passed to expand federal funding for stem cell research undergo "a thoughtful and thorough rewrite" to correct what he said were ethical shortcomings. Advocates say any changes the Senate makes to the House bill would complicate its chances when negotiators try to reconcile the differences.
"Embryonic stem cell research should be encouraged and supported," Frist said in a Senate floor speech Friday. "But ... it should advance in a manner that affords all human life dignity and respect, the same dignity and respect we bring to the table as we work with children and adults to advance the frontiers of medicine and health."
In addition to altering the political landscape for such research, Frist's stance has political consequences for the Tennessee Republican himself. He plans to leave the Senate when his term ends in 2006 and may run for president in 2008. But some conservative religious leaders said Friday that Frist's stance on this issue would cost him votes.
James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, said that if Frist thought his stance would help him in a presidential campaign, "he has gravely miscalculated."
"To push for the expansion of this suspect and unethical science will be rightly seen by America's values voters as the worst kind of betrayal—choosing politics over principle," he said.
At issue is research on whether stem cells can be used to find cures for diseases ranging from Parkinson's and diabetes to certain types of cancer. Stem cells can transform themselves into cells for virtually any part of the body, from brain to bone. They can be extracted from adults without harm, but the most promising ones, scientists say, come from human embryos.
In 2001, Bush allowed government labs to conduct research with embryonic stem cells, but limited it to 72 existing lines of cells. Scientists now say most of those lines are useless.
"While human embryonic stem cell research is still at a very early stage, the limitations put in place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases," Frist said. "Therefore, I believe the president's policy should be modified."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan on Friday reiterated Bush's opposition to expanding federal research. "The president has made his position very clear," McClellan said. "Nothing has changed in terms of his position."
If Bush were to veto any bill, two-thirds of the lawmakers in each chamber of Congress must vote to override his veto for the measure to become law. The House voted last May to expand federal support for stem cell research, but the margin of passage fell short of a two-thirds majority. Advocates said they hoped Frist's support would give the Senate a veto-proof margin and make it harder for Bush to reject the legislation.
"I don't think he wants his first veto to result in spinal cord-injured patients trying to chain their wheelchairs to the White House fence," said Sean Tipton, spokesman for the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a leading sponsor of expanded research, said Frist's position "pushes us significantly down the line. It has very substantial implications for government—and I use the word `government' as opposed to `politics'—because as majority leader, I believe his views will be influential on other senators, and perhaps even with the president."
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, another sponsor of the Senate bill, said Frist's concerns about stricter ethical oversight of stem cell research could be done administratively by the National Institutes of Health, which would monitor it.
But Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., argued that adult stem cells and the lines Bush had authorized were more than adequate for research.
"There is a very basic principle that is involved here though, and that is whether or not the young human embryo is a life or a piece of property," Brownback said.
While some religious conservatives denounced Frist, John Green, an expert on religious voters at the University of Akron, said social conservatives didn't place stem cell research atop their agenda.
"Abortion, marriage and judges are on a higher level than stem cells," Green said. "Senator Frist could maintain pretty good relationships with conservative Christians because of his stands on these other issues and still take a different perspective on stem cells."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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