Video: Political bombshell

updated 7/29/2005 7:33:10 PM ET 2005-07-29T23:33:10

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist on Friday threw his support behind legislation to expand federal financing for embryonic stem cell research, breaking with President Bush and religious conservatives in a move that could impact his prospects for seeking the White House in 2008.

“It’s not just a matter of faith, it’s a matter of science,” Frist said on the floor of the Senate.

Frist, a heart-lung transplant surgeon who opposes abortion, said modifying Bush’s strict limitations on stem cell research would lead to scientific advances and “bridge the moral and ethical differences” that have made the issue politically charged.

“While human embryonic stem cell research is still at a very early stage, the limitation put into place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases,” the Tennessee lawmaker said in his speech.

“Therefore, I believe the president’s policy should be modified. We should expand federal funding ... and current guidelines governing stem cell research, carefully and thoughtfully, staying within ethical bounds,” he said.

White House reaction
At the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan said Frist had given Bush advance notice of his announcement. “The president said, ‘You’ve got to vote your conscience,”’ McClellan said.

“The president’s made his position clear,” the spokesman said when asked if Bush stands by his threat to veto a pending bill that would liberalize federal support for stem cell research. “There is a principle involved here from the president’s standpoint when it comes to issues of life,” McClellan said.

Bush and Frist appeared together at the White House shortly after Frist’s speech as the president signed a bill that allows health care professionals to report information on medical errors without fearing that it will be used against them in lawsuits.

Bush introduced him as “Doctor Bill Frist” and afterward, Bush shook Frist’s hand and said something that made the majority leader laugh. As Bush was leaving the room, he summoned Frist to join him.

The Christian Defense Coalition lambasted Frist’s change of position.

“Sen. Frist should not expect support and endorsement from the pro-life community if he votes for embryonic research funding,” it said.

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“Senator Frist cannot have it both ways. He cannot be pro-life and pro-embryonic stem cell funding,” said Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the group. “Nor can he turn around and expect widespread endorsement from the pro-life community if he should decide to run for president in 2008.”

Praise from some peers
But Frist’s decision brought immediate praise from some Senate colleagues.

“It is a decision that will bring hope to millions of Americans,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “I know there’s still a long ways to go with the legislation, but a large step has been taken by the majority leader today ... and I admire the majority leader for doing it.”

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who is fighting cancer, called Frist’s talk “perhaps the most important speech made on the floor this year, and perhaps the most important speech made in many years ... It has an enormous impact.”

Said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.: “As a physician, Sen. Frist has a moral calling to save lives and alleviate suffering. He honors his Hippocratic Oath today by recognizing the unique healing power of embryonic stem cells.”

A bill to finance more stem cell research has passed the House, but has been stalled in the Senate. Frist’s support could push it closer to passage and set up a confrontation with Bush.

It also could impact Frist’s own political future. As a likely presidential candidate in 2008, Frist has been courting religious conservatives who helped make Bush a twice-elected president and generally consider embryonic stem cell research a moral equivalent to abortion. But the announcement, coming just a month after Frist said he did not support expanded financing “at this juncture,” could help him with centrist voters.

With those political realities in mind, Frist argued that his positions on stem cell research and abortion were not inconsistent.

‘Treat the embryo with dignity’
According to recent polls, some two-thirds of Americans say they support embryonic stem cell research and a majority of people say they would like to see fewer restrictions on taxpayer funding for those studies.

“From those cells we have the potential for looking at those diseases that everybody knows about, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and others,” Frist said Friday.

“I give huge moral significance to the human embryo, it is nascent human life,” he said. “What that means is as we advance science, we treat that embryo with dignity, with respect.”

He credited Bush with opening the doors for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, and said when this policy was announced in 2001, policy-makers thought 78 stem cell lines would be available. Since then, the number has dropped to 22.

“Those 22 cell lines are not of the quality for human application or human therapy, and that’s why today I believe we need to modify that policy,” Frist said.

When Bush announced his position on stem cell research, he said the government should pay only for research of stem cell colonies, or lines, that had already been created at that time, so that the “life or death” decision had already been made.

Frist said additional stem cells should be used, so long as there was a careful process of informed consent in which the parents had decided that the embryos should be discarded, not adopted or frozen.

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