Frist's reversal boosts hopes for revised stem-cell policy

Stance puts senator at odds with president

July 30, 2005|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Advocates of more government spending for embryonic stem-cell research said yesterday's turnabout by Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist has the potential to change the outcome in Congress and, they hope, influence President Bush to change his mind, too.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Frist said he would now support legislation, passed by the House in May, to allow more federal funding for research using embryos that would otherwise be discarded. The move puts Frist at odds with Bush and some religious conservatives, who oppose changing a restrictive policy outlined by the president four years ago.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a vocal supporter of expanded federal funding, called Frist's decision "an earthquake."

"The change is profound," the Pennsylvania Republican said. "Because the majority leader, if you want to characterize it in terms of giving cover, has given cover to the entire Senate, given cover to the entire House of Representatives."

But religious conservatives, whom Frist has courted in advance of a possible presidential try, were outraged. James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family and a leading Christian conservative activist, said if Frist was trying to shore up his chances at winning the White House, he had 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," Dobson said in a statement.

Specter stopped short of predicting that Frist's support would sway enough Senate votes to override a threatened presidential veto.

But, he claimed, the Tennessee senator's change of position "is good for 20 votes."

The Senate won't act on the legislation until after Labor Day, with Congress now starting a monthlong recess. But Senate debate over stem cell research - and several other related bills, including one banning human cloning - could share the spotlight in September with the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr.

Republican Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware, a leading sponsor of the stem-cell measure in the House, expressed doubt that proponents could muster the two-thirds vote needed to override a veto. But Frist's change of position might put pressure on the White House to forge some kind of compromise, he said.

"There's nobody in this building whose endorsement could matter more," said Castle. "I don't think that the president and the White House can continue to ignore this policy."

Stem cell research advocates said Frist's decision had clearly improved the prospects for passage of the measure by both houses of Congress.

"I think we will have a comfortable majority," said Sean Tipton, spokesman for the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. The lobby group represents scientific societies, research institutions and universities, including the Johns Hopkins University.

In August 2001, Bush announced a policy that restricted federally funded research to a limited set of existing stem cell lines. Since then, scientists have complained that there are fewer lines to work with than Bush anticipated. Interest groups for research on illnesses such as diabetes and Parkinson's disease have sought an expansion of the policy, arguing that embryonic stem cells could yield major breakthroughs.

Opponents of the research argue that it destroys life and that its scientific promise has yet to be proven - and may never be. They promote using adult stem cells for research, and some other alternative methods.

Bush has held firm to his position, which is supported by many of the social and religious conservative activists who backed his re-election last year. The president recently played host at the White House to families of so-called "snowflake" babies - children who were adopted by their parents as embryos - on the day the House voted on the bill.

Bush "does not believe we should be using taxpayer dollars to support the further destruction of human life," Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said yesterday. The policy is based on Bush's belief that "we shouldn't be creating life for the sole purpose of destroying it," he said.

Frist alerted Bush in a phone call Thursday night that he planned to air his differences with White House policy, McClellan said, and the president told him to "vote his conscience." Bush also went out of his way to appear chummy with the Senate leader yesterday during a bill-signing ceremony next door to the White House.

Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who, like Frist, is eyeing a run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, was quick to reiterate his opposition to expanded federal funding. The Kansas senator said he was "quite confident" that Bush would stick to his veto threat.

Several House Republicans also said they would keep fighting against expanded federal funding.

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