Frist backs bill to fund stem cell research

Senate GOP leader takes stance opposed to Bush


WASHINGTON - In a break with President Bush, Senate Republican leader Bill Frist has decided to support a bill to expand federal financing for embryonic stem cell research - a move that could push it closer to passage and force a confrontation with the White House, which is threatening to veto the measure.

Frist, a heart-lung transplant surgeon who said last month that he did not support expanding financing "at this juncture," is expected to announce his decision this morning in a Senate speech. In it, he says that while he has reservations about altering Bush's four-year-old policy, which placed strict limits on taxpayer funding for the work, he supports the bill nonetheless.

"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 says, according to a text of the speech provided by his office. "Therefore, I believe the president's policy should be modified."

Frist's decision will undoubtedly change the political landscape in the debate over embryonic stem cell research, one of the thorniest moral issues to come before the Congress.

The stem cell bill has passed the House but is stalled in the Senate, where competing measures are also under consideration. Because Frist's colleagues look to him for advice on medical matters, his support for the bill could break the Senate logjam. It could also give undecided Republicans political license to back the legislation, already close to having the 60 Senate votes it needs to defeat a filibuster aimed at blocking it.

But the move could also hinder Frist's own political prospects. The senator is widely considered a potential candidate for the presidency in 2008, and supporting an expansion of the policy will put him at odds not only with the White House but also with Christian conservatives, whose support he will need in the race for the Republican nomination.

"I am pro-life," Frist says in the speech, arguing that he can reconcile his support for the science with his own Christian faith. "I believe human life begins at conception." But at the same time, he says, "I also believe that embryonic stem cell research should be encouraged and supported."

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