Perhaps Bill Frist isn’t running for President after all:
In a break with President Bush, the Senate Republican leader, Bill Frist, has decided to support a bill to expand federal financing for embryonic stem cell research, a move that could push it closer to passage and force a confrontation with the White House, which is threatening to veto the measure.
Mr. Frist, a heart-lung transplant surgeon who said last month that he did not back expanding financing “at this juncture,” is expected to announce his decision Friday morning in a lengthy Senate speech. In it, he says that while he has reservations about altering Mr. Bush’s four-year-old policy, which placed strict limits on taxpayer financing for the work, he supports the bill nonetheless.
“While human embryonic stem cell research is still at a very early stage, the limitations put in place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases,” Mr. Frist says, according to a text of the speech provided by his office Thursday evening. “Therefore, I believe the president’s policy should be modified.”
Mr. Frist’s move will undoubtedly change the political landscape in the debate over embryonic stem cell research, one of the thorniest moral issues to come before Congress. The chief House sponsor of the bill, Representative Michael N. Castle, Republican of Delaware, said, “His support is of huge significance.”
The stem cell bill has passed the House but is stalled in the Senate, where competing measures are also under consideration. Because Mr. Frist’s colleagues look to him for advice on medical matters, his support for the bill could break the Senate logjam. It could also give undecided Republicans political license to back the legislation, which is already close to having the votes it needs to pass the Senate.
The move could also have implications for Mr. Frist’s political future. The senator is widely considered a potential candidate for the presidency in 2008, and supporting an expansion of the policy will put him at odds not only with the White House but also with Christian conservatives, whose support he will need in the race for the Republican nomination. But the decision could also help him win support among centrists.
“I am pro-life,” Mr. Frist says in the speech, arguing that he can reconcile his support for the science with his own Christian faith. “I believe human life begins at conception.”
But at the same time, he says, “I also believe that embryonic stem cell research should be encouraged and supported.”
I offered a luke-warm defense (more precisely, I attacked the overwrought criticisms and the absurd John Edwards/Christopher Reeves BS) of the President’s initial stem-cell plan several years ago. I was wrong to even bother, as this research should be done. Glad to see Frist is moving in the right direction on this.