Sunday, July 16, 2006

Frist sees stem cell Senate win, politics uncertain

Frist sees stem cell Senate win, politics uncertain
By Joanne Kenen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Majority Leader Bill Frist predicted on Friday the U.S. Senate would pass legislation next week expanding federal stem cell research, likely triggering a veto from President George W. Bush with unpredictable political repercussions.

Bush has vowed to cast his first veto to block the research that many believe could lead to new treatments for diseases including diabetes and Parkinson's. The president says it is morally unacceptable to destroy an embryo even for scientific research.

But those who back the research, including some Republicans like Frist who also oppose abortion rights, note that excess embryos at fertility clinics would be destroyed anyway and should be used in research that could revolutionize medicine during the next decade.

"This is preserving life by opening up therapies that we don't have now and may have in the future," Frist told a small group of reporters. "The hope is to advance the hopes and dreams and realities of scientific research in a strong ethical and moral framework."

The stem cell debate is playing a role in several close Senate races, particularly in Missouri and Pennsylvania, where incumbent Republicans James Talent and Rick Santorum face strong challenges. Democrats predict stem cell legislation will work in their favor with voters, helping them win back some independents and centrists.

And because the issue divides even conservative Republicans, it is likely to figure in the coming battle for the 2008 presidential nomination. Frist himself, a Tennessee Republican eyeing a presidential bid, said he doesn't know what it will mean for his own political aspirations.

"I have no idea," said Frist, a transplant surgeon. "This is one for the people who know what makes me tick."

"It's absolutely the right thing to do for the American people," he added.

Frist's conservative record and a visible role in the U.S. debate over ending the life of brain-damaged Florida woman Terri Schiavo has not endeared him to moderates, while his stem cell stance alienated some on the right.

Frist broke with Bush last summer to embrace House-passed legislation expanding federal funding of embryonic stem cell science. He predicted that the legislation, as well as two less controversial stem cell bills, will get more than the 60 votes needed in the 100-member Senate under a complex agreement he brokered to get the package to the floor next Monday and Tuesday.


Bush, who in 2001 allowed research on a small number of stem cell lines, is expected to veto the bill. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is likely to back his veto.

But the fallout won't be immediately clear.

Democrats see stem cells as a winner for their side because Americans "overwhelmingly support this research," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "The president will be making a dire mistake for the American people if he vetoes this."

New York Democrat Charles Schumer, heading up the Senate Democrats' campaign efforts this November, said a Bush veto would send the message: "I am with the ideologues on the hard right and so is my party."

But conservatives, including Pennsylvania's Santorum, have sponsored the other two bills they say do not involve embryonic research and still promote ethical scientific advances. Bush is likely to sign those bills.

Some of the hard-right conservatives, like Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, who may also make a presidential run in 2008, believe the public should be skeptical about the scientific claims of embryonic research and not lose a moral compass.

"Everybody's got a good heart," Brownback said. "I just I think some of them are wrong."