Abandoned by his most prominent Senate ally, President Bush moved closer Friday to a confrontation with fellow Republicans over his opposition to expanded federal backing for embryonic stem cell research, as one of the most explosive moral issues of his presidency reignited in Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) announced that he would support legislation allowing the federal government to finance research using a broader range of embryonic stem cells. His decision substantially raised the odds that the bill would win approval in Congress and face a presidential veto, which White House strategists had hoped to avoid.
Frist’s announcement, in a speech Friday in the Senate, exposed deep rifts within the GOP hierarchy that controls the Capitol and the White House. The issue pits social conservatives, who view the research as immoral because human embryos are destroyed in the process, against people who say the research is warranted because it may lead to cures for diseases.
The announcement by Frist, a transplant surgeon who is considered a likely contender for president in 2008, contradicted recent signals that he would oppose the legislation, and word of his decision Thursday night caught his Senate colleagues and the White House by surprise. It also was an unambiguous sign that politics had tilted in favor of research advocates and against Bush and the social conservatives who are the core of his political base.
In his speech, Frist broke from conservatives who say the potential of the research is overstated. “Cure today may be just a theory, a hope, a dream,” he said. “But the promise is powerful enough that I believe this research deserves our increased energy and focus.”
Stem cells from human embryos have drawn interest because many scientists believe they might one day be fashioned into brain cells for Parkinson’s disease patients, insulin-producing cells for diabetics, and other replacements for cells and tissues that go awry in disease.
Under rules set by Bush, the federal government only finances research on cells drawn from human embryos before he announced the policy on Aug. 9, 2001. Bush said his goal was to allow the research to move forward without using taxpayer money to cause additional embryos to be destroyed. The rules do not prohibit privately funded research on new stem cell groups.
On Friday, Frist sided with scientists, patients’ groups and lawmakers who have said Bush’s policy is too restrictive, leaving federally backed scientists unable to work with newer and apparently more versatile cell groups.
“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.”
Frist said he would back legislation allowing the government to fund research using embryonic stem cells no matter when they were created. As under current policy, the cells could come only from embryos that couples created at fertility clinics but that were no longer needed and would otherwise be destroyed.
Frist’s position is significant because he is the Senate’s majority leader as well as a physician who carries clout with his colleagues on health issues. He is also one of several lawmakers who oppose abortion because it destroys embryos but who, under certain restrictions, favor research that entails destroying embryos.
It was unclear Friday whether his decision would lead to a change in policy.
The White House said Bush stood by his vow to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk. The measure has passed the House, though about 50 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
Frist’s announcement gave the measure new momentum in the Senate, where it had stalled amid a White House effort to strip votes from it by promoting as many as five alternative bills.
Frist’s direct rebuffing of Bush -- a rarity in an era of lockstep Republican leadership -- drew immediate sharp words from leading religious conservatives, who have said they expect support for their positions because of their role in helping the GOP to electoral victory last year.
Some suggested that Frist’s stance on stem cells would harm him if he sought higher office.
“Maybe he’s not running for president,” said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council and one of Frist’s most vocal supporters in recent battles to place conservative judges in federal courts. “I don’t know, but this is clearly an issue that is very important to the pro-life community. Anyone who is on the wrong side of this is going to have difficulty with the pro-life community.”
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who opposes the research, said: “I’d think the candidate that believes in ... making a choice between one life over another, making commodities out of embryos, would have a really hard time appealing to the vast majority of the Republicans in this party.”
Catholic League President William Donahue called Frist “a hypocrite.”
In a written statement, Donahue said: “His change of heart has nothing to do with any scientific breakthrough.... What’s changed is that Dr. Duplicity wants to be president.”
Frist’s stance appeared to put him closer to the mainstream of public opinion. In a May survey for CBS News, 58% of respondents said they favored embryonic stem cell research; 31% said they opposed it. In an April survey for ABC News and the Washington Post, 63% supported the research and 28% opposed it. Both polls had a margin of error of plus or minus 3%.
One Republican ally of both Frist and the White House said Friday that Bush’s position had proved impossible to sustain. The ally, who requested anonymity because of increasingly “raw” feelings in the party, said the president’s position was not held by rank-and-file Republican voters.
“This view is held by a sliver of a sliver,” the ally said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan disputed the suggestion that Bush’s position was alienating many Americans and widening divisions in his conservative base. “Many Americans understand and appreciate the decision that he came to, because this is a difficult issue,” McClellan said. “It is their taxpayer dollars.... That’s where he drew the line.”
In California, officials said that even if a broader federal policy became law, the federal government still could not finance research allowed under Proposition 71, which created the state’s $3-billion embryonic stem cell agency.
Bob Klein, chairman of the agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, said a broader federal policy would still leave a “massive gap” that California could fill. For example, Proposition 71 funds a procedure that aims to use cloning techniques to create stem cells that exactly match an individual’s genetic makeup.
Stem cells created this way would presumably be easier to transplant into a patient. But the technique, sometimes called therapeutic cloning, is controversial and would not be funded under the legislation moving through Congress. The House has voted twice to criminalize it.
In Congress, Republican supporters of stem cell research said they were optimistic that Frist’s support would persuade other Republicans to switch their position.
Before Frist’s speech, the major bill expanding federal support for embryonic stem cell research had support from 56 of the Senate’s 100 members, said Sarah Chamberlin, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a centrist coalition of members of Congress.
“We hope that by the leader doing this, he can give some of the senators who were on the fence cover to change their opinion,” Chamberlin said.
Chamberlin said that after Frist’s speech, she expected the bill to draw 60 votes -- enough to break a filibuster but short of the 67 needed to override a veto.
A Frist aide said the senator began to revisit the stem cell issue in the spring, when a House bill to loosen federal policy, co-sponsored by Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), was gathering steam. “As a doctor and a scientist, he re-engaged with the issue to refresh himself on what has happened in the last few years,” the aide said.
Frist had backed federal funding for some research, but when the president’s policy was announced, he did not consider it inconsistent with his own views. However, the aide said, Frist believes developments since then have changed the scientific landscape -- in particular, evidence that the 22 federally eligible stem cell lines are less fruitful than expected.
About three weeks ago, Frist told a few aides he would support the Castle bill’s approach and asked them to draft a speech.
On Thursday night, shortly after 8, he phoned the White House to tell the president he was going to announce that he would vote for the Senate version of the Castle bill.
“The president said, ‘You’ve got to vote your conscience,’ ” said McClellan, the Bush spokesman.
Frist then phoned House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Nancy Reagan, widow of President Reagan and an advocate of the research.
“Thank you, Dr. Frist, for standing up for America’s patients,” Reagan said Friday in a statement.
Times staff writers Steven Bodzin, Megan Garvey, Karen Kaplan and Warren Vieth contributed to this report.