- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2005

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist yesterday endorsed a bill to make more embryonic stem-cell research eligible for federal funding, breaking with President Bush who already said he would veto the legislation.

Mr. Frist said the president’s policy limits research and needs to be modified, a stance that sent shock waves throughout the Capitol.

“We should expand federal funding… and current guidelines governing stem-cell research, carefully and thoughtfully staying within ethical bounds,” said the Tennessee Republican, who is considered to be positioning himself for a presidential run, in a Senate speech yesterday.

Mr. Frist, a physician, expressed qualified support for House-passed legislation that allows federal funding for an unspecified number of new lines of stem cells derived from embryos left over at in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics. Mr. Bush’s 2001 policy limits federal funding to a group of embryonic stem-cell lines already in existence at that time — estimated to be 78 lines.

Mr. Frist said, however, that only about 22 of those lines are currently available, and many are contaminated, so the policy should be expanded.

White House spokesman Scott McCellan said Mr. Frist told Mr. Bush of his planned announcement on Thursday night, and the president told him “You need to vote your conscience.”

Mr. Bush, however, is holding firm on the issue. “Nothing’s changed in terms of his position,” Mr. McClellan said.

“The president does not believe we should be using taxpayer dollars… to support the further destruction of human life. That’s where he set the line.”

On Capitol Hill, however, members of both parties agreed with Mr. Frist that it is time for an expansion. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, praised Mr. Frist’s position as a “significant and most-welcome breakthrough,” and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, called Mr. Frist “courageous.”

Other Republicans expressed deep disappointment. “The courageous speech would have been to continue to stand for the sanctity of human life,” said Rep. Phil Gingrey, Georgia Republican and fellow doctor. “We will fight them on this to the very end.”

“Senator Frist is a good man; he is simply advocating a bad policy,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

Mr. Frist supported federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research four years ago, and also supported Mr. Bush’s 2001 policy, but has always felt it should be revisited at intervals and expanded if necessary.

Embryonic stem cells have the ability to develop into virtually any type of body cell, which supporters say could be the key to curing a host of ailments.

Mr. DeLay and other opponents, say the promise of embryonic stem-cell research has been hyped and is far from proven. They say government should focus on adult stem-cell research and research into umbilical cord blood, which is already producing treatments.

The exact number of embryos that would be eligible for federally funded research under the House-passed bill is unknown and the subject of dispute. Supporters of the bill — sponsored in the Senate by Mr. Hatch, Sens. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, and Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat — say it would be limited to embryos that otherwise would be discarded.

A 2003 Rand study found that of 400,000 leftover IVF embryos, only 8,800 are designated to be thrown out. Opponents of the bill say researchers will quickly push to expand this limited number or will start cloning human embryos.

Mr. Frist made clear that he wants to apply stricter ethical guidelines to the the bill, ensuring that the parents of the embryo are the ones to approve the research and that no one profits from it.

Some said Mr. Frist’s position will help him, should he decide to seek the Republican presidential nomination, since there’s broad public support for such research. “It definitely would help,” said Mr. Hatch. But Mr. DeLay said any candidate who advocates the destruction of human life in any form “would have a very hard time appealing to the vast majority of Republicans in this party.”

Senate action on the stem-cell issue is still being worked out. A spokesman for Mr. Frist said he is still trying to get senators to agree to vote on a menu of research-related bills, including the House-passed embryonic stem-cell bill, a ban on human cloning, and a measure that would fund research into cutting-edge methods that may derive stem cells without harming or destroying human embryos. Mr. Frist has been unable for weeks to get agreement on his multibill plan, in part because Mr. Harkin and others insist their bill should come up alone.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland Republican, is sponsoring a House bill to fund the new, cutting-edge methods. He said it would be politically wise of Republicans to send Mr. Bush such an alternative bill to sign when he vetoes the broader embryonic stem-cell bill. Otherwise, Mr. Bartlett said, the public will react, and “there’s going to be a political downside for Republicans.”

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