Correct position, odd timing

July 31, 2005

SENATE MAJORITY Leader Bill Frist's surprise announcement Friday that he would buck President Bush and religious conservatives on stem cell research was welcome, but puzzling.

Drawing upon his training as a physician, Mr. Frist threw his support behind House-passed legislation allowing federal research on embryonic stem cells left over from fertilization treatments. It was an unexpected return to a position he took in July 2001, but shelved after Mr. Bush adopted a more restrictive policy.

His dramatic floor statement - leaked in advance for maximum attention - was not driven by politics but principle, said the Tennessee Republican who is exploring a White House bid in 2008.

And indeed, he may pay a political price, at least in the short term. Religious conservatives who play an outsized role in GOP primaries were infuriated because they equate research that destroys embryos with abortion.

But a majority of Americans - and apparently a majority of lawmakers - want to free up federal dollars for research believed to have enormous potential to treat or even cure myriad diseases and injuries.

Mr. Frist, whose credibility suffered when he appeared to be diagnosing Terri Schiavo long distance as part of a widely unpopular campaign to force doctors to reinsert the brain-damaged woman's feeding tube, may be trying to improve his image with moderates.

In any case, it's not clear how much his sudden pronouncement - coming just as the Senate prepared to depart for a monthlong recess - will change the legislative calculus unless Mr. Frist genuinely wants it to.

He refused in recent weeks to bring up the House-passed bill, seeking instead a compromise that would allow it to be considered alongside competing and conflicting legislation. He called Friday for a "thoughtful and thorough" rewrite of the House bill to inject ethical safeguards, which could be a wise policy move - or a stall tactic.

What's more, if President Bush makes good on his threat to veto the measure, not even Mr. Frist's support is likely to bring along enough Republicans for an override.

As a transplant surgeon, Mr. Frist speaks frequently about the wonder of holding a human heart in his hands. Today he holds human hopes. While we applaud his support for vital research, we'll clap much harder if he can make that research a reality.

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