By MARC SANDALOW
San Francisco Chronicle
August 02, 2005
Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist's break with Bush on the topic, a decision he announced Friday on the Senate floor, seems to assure that legislation expanding research will pass Congress this session, possibly as early as September. The House passed a measure in May that would override Bush's executive order banning federal research on embryonic stem cell lines created after 2001.
That means Bush may face something he has hardly seen during his 4 1/2 years in office: legislation from GOP-friendly Capitol Hill that he cannot sign.
"The president's made his position very clear," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said when asked whether Bush stands by his pledge to veto any legislation to expand the number of stem cell lines available for federally funded research. "Nothing's changed in terms of his position."
That Republicans might defy a veto threat to pass such an emotionally and politically charged measure reflects widespread public support for research that many experts believe could lead to treatments for dozens of ailments, including diabetes, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and spinal injuries.
Frist, himself a doctor, referred to the unique research potential of such stem cells and their "great promise to heal."
Many conservatives, including former first lady Nancy Reagan and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have advocated that federal dollars be spent studying stem cells that have been nurtured at fertility clinics and would otherwise be discarded as excess. Advocates, including many academics and researchers, say Bush's order has severely restricted a promising field of inquiry.
In May, the House passed a measure that would override Bush's order and permit federal money to be spent on the study of new embryonic stem cells, so long as the cells were not created for the sole purpose of research. The measure passed with 50 Republican votes, including some staunch abortion opponents, and - despite opposition from Bush - reliable White House supporters like Reps. David Dreier of San Dimas and Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach.
The passage came after an intensive lobbying effort, including meetings with scores of individuals who said their health, or the well-being of a relative, depended on it.
"If someone is there in the office with their child saying, 'You are going to kill my child if you don't fund this research,' not many congressmen are going to say no," said Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at the conservative National Review magazine, an opponent of the legislation who believes much of the Republican support is driven by politics.
"Most of the polls suggest that increased federal funding for embryo destructive research is popular ... any politician is going to pay attention to that," Ponnuru said.
Yet others see more than political opportunism in the GOP's divisions. The issue raises profound ethical questions of the cloning and the proper limits of science. And unlike abortion, another emotionally charged issue, the answers tend to be less black and white.
"With abortion, you are either pro-choice or pro-life. With stem cell research, there are many more nuanced positions," said Bill Whalen, a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.
Bush's solution was to permit federal money to be spent only on stem cell lines that existed at the time he issued his order in August 2001. The number of useable lines, estimated to be about 78 at the time, has dwindled to 22, and many researchers say the scope is insufficient to meet scientific demands.
Bush's order did not ban private research into embryonic stem cells. California voters agreed to issue a $3 billion bond last year to promote such research in the state. However, the federal government's enormous research budget is considered pivotal for the rapid advancement of the science.
"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.
The political fallout for Frist, who has made no secret of his presidential ambitions, is unclear. Frist's decision leaves Republicans with few nationally known presidential contenders who are against both legal abortions and federal stem cell research.
His announcement immediately drew angry responses from religious conservatives who are critical to the success of GOP primary candidates.
"It certainly gives one pause in trusting his commitment to the sanctity of life," said Lanier Swann, director of government relations for Concerned Women for America, which distributed a release to reporters entitled: "Frist's Flip-Flop."
"Sen. Frist is a good man. He is simply advocating a bad policy," said House Republican Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, suggesting that there may be a political price to pay.
"The Republican Party is a strong pro-life party that believes in the sanctity of life," DeLay said. "A candidate that believes in the destruction of life ... would have a very hard time appealing to the vast majority of Republicans."
At the same time, Frist's speech drew accolades from stem cell research advocates such as Nancy Reagan.
"Embryonic stem cell research has the potential to alleviate so much suffering," Reagan said. "Thank you, Dr. Frist, for standing up for America's patients."
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