Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is in a difficult and tight spot as he tries — perhaps in vain — to find a way for the Senate to address the contentious embryonic stem-cell issue while satisfying various factions.
“Senator Frist is riding two horses in the circus,” said Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican, explaining that Mr. Frist is trying to “keep faith” with his colleagues, protect the White House and stay true to his own convictions. “I guess that’s three horses,” Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Frist, in an attempt to placate all factions, last week suggested that the Senate vote on a menu of stem cell-related bills. But the Tennessee Republican has been unable to get everyone in his own party to agree, let alone the Democrats. A meeting late yesterday with seven Republican senators didn’t produce an agreement, either.
Supporters of a bill to expand President Bush’s stem-cell policy were expected to force it into other legislation if they weren’t given a clean vote on their measure — which already passed the House and has bipartisan Senate support.
But the bill, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, is staunchly opposed by conservative lawmakers, pro-life family groups and the White House — which has promised to veto it.
Conservatives have demanded that if the embryonic-stem-cell bill comes to the floor, so should their long-awaited human cloning ban, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican. If that does not happen, Mr. Brownback has promised to filibuster the embryonic-stem-cell bill.
“If they want an up-or-down vote … then we would like a vote on the human cloning ban,” said David Christensen, director of congressional affairs for the Family Research Council.
“A cloning vote in the Senate — we’ve been waiting for that for a long time,” said Lanier Swann, director of government relations at Concerned Women for America.
Meanwhile, Mr. Frist and the White House have been pushing a measure still being crafted that would fund research into new methods being developed to create stem cells without harming embryos. But outside conservative groups have had concerns with the new bill, too, because they don’t want to fund any sort of research unless it is certain not to harm the embryos.
“We made it clear to Senate leadership … that we would oppose doing this right away in humans until we know more,” Mr. Christensen said.
He said that the last he heard, however, his group could support the bill because it would only fund research to explore the new methods in animal studies.
Mr. Frist wants the Senate to vote on numerous bioethics bills — a proposal to expand Mr. Bush’s embryonic-stem-cell policy, another proposal to expand the policy in a more limited fashion, the cloning ban, a popular bill promoting umbilical cord blood research and the measure encouraging the new methods of creating stem cells.
Supporters of the main embryonic-stem-cell bill have worried the multibill strategy was just an attempt to confuse the debate and draw support away from their bill, causing it to fail.
Mr. Specter seemed more hopeful yesterday, saying Republicans are “pretty much in accord” to take up the series of bills.
Mr. Smith wasn’t as upbeat. “Don’t bet the farm,” he said.