Frist’s Shift Stirs Stem Cell Debate

Times Staff Writer

Supporters of legislation to expand federally funded stem cell research expressed optimism Sunday that fresh support from the Senate’s top Republican, Majority Leader Bill Frist, would help them build a veto-proof majority in Congress.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a key proponent of stem cell research, says at least 62 senators now support his bill to expand federal funding and he hopes to reach 67 -- the number needed to override a presidential veto.

“We’re on our way,” Specter said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Acknowledging that support was not nearly so strong in the House, he said he thought that the Senate momentum would have “an impact on [members of] the House who can say, ‘Well, there’s a little political cover.’ ”


Despite opposition from President Bush and antiabortion groups, a growing number of Republicans have said they support the expansion of federal research funding. Proponents say the research offers promise for treating diseases including cancer, diabetes and Parkinson’s. Opponents, who believe that life begins at conception, oppose destroying human embryos to extract stem cells.

Citing his expertise as a physician, Frist withdrew his support Friday for Bush’s stem cell policy, which restricts research funding to cell lines established by 2001.

The limits “will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases,” Frist said in a Senate speech. “Therefore, I believe the president’s policy should be modified.”

Opponents of stem cell research acknowledged that support for it was growing and said they would seek to ensure that embryos were not created expressly to provide stem cells or other research material.

“We all want cures. We all want scientific cures. But there’s this great pause about the notion of taking that young human life for the purposes of research,” Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a key abortion foe, said on CBS.

Opponents of stem cell research warned that Frist -- who is widely believed to be preparing for a 2008 presidential bid -- risked alienating conservative Republicans with his changed position.

“It may help in some circles,” Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Obviously, [former First Lady] Nancy Reagan was out there saying this was a good idea. But I think certainly for the base, for the conservative base, this is going to be problematic for him.”

Research proponents, however, said Frist’s shift could enhance his chances of winning the GOP nomination.

“You have an enormous constituency out there, 110 million Americans, directly or indirectly affected by Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease, etc.,” Specter said. “I think that Sen. Frist’s statement is a declaration that you don’t have to agree with every segment of the Republican Party in order to be the Republican nominee.... The way the matter is trending now, I don’t think a presidential candidate opposed to stem cells [research] could be elected.”

Santorum said that even if the Senate were to vote to expand federal research funding, a presidential veto and House opposition would scuttle the effort. (A measure that passed the House was about 50 votes short of the threshold to override a veto.)

“Without question, the president will veto this. I mean, the president understands that the federal government should not be on the side of taking innocent human life, period,” Santorum said. “I’m hopeful that the House in particular will continue to have the votes necessary to sustain his veto.”