Stem Cells and the Mystifying Mr. Frist Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has decided to break with the Bush administration to back expanded federal funding for stem-cell research. NPR Washington Editor Ron Elving examines Frist's position and the political calculus that may be behind it.
NPR logo Stem Cells and the Mystifying Mr. Frist

Stem Cells and the Mystifying Mr. Frist

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is surely making big news with his position on federal funding for stem cell research, but it's less clear just what the actual news is.

It's not new that Frist, a surgeon by trade, favors federal funding for some form of stem cell research. Most everyone in the Senate wants that. It's also not new that Frist thinks at least some of that money should go for research on stem cells harvested from embryos. He took that position on the floor of the Senate back in July 2001.

And it's also not new that there's a difference between Frist and President Bush on this issue. Frist has long been more open to the idea of using embryos than Bush.

What's different now is that Frist has suddenly decided to re-emphasize that difference — and quite publicly — after four years of stressing where he and the president agreed.

A bit of background is required here. Research on embryonic stem cells is far more controversial than on stem cells derived from adult tissue. That's because millions of social conservatives in the United States, and quite a few in the U.S. Senate, consider the destruction of any human embryo tantamount to abortion. If life begins at conception, then an embryo is a life.

But Frist was willing to accept at least some research on embryos four years ago, so long as the embryos were not created for that purpose. The middle ground he staked out in July 2001 specified that research embryos had to have begun as potential children: byproducts of in vitro fertilization procedures. They had to be embryos that were left over when a particular couple no longer wanted another pregnancy. Such unused embryos are now routinely destroyed.

That sounded like a reasonable resolution of the conflict in the summer of 2001, and it did again when Frist essentially laid it out again last week.

But this time it sounded different — and new — because in the intervening years Frist has struck a different note on the issue. He did so after President Bush, speaking in August 2001, endorsed Frist's ideas about embryos but then restricted the field much further. Bush said research should be federally funded only as it applied to existing lines of embryonic stem cells. Beyond that, he said, funds should go only to research that did not use embryos.

Though this greatly narrowed the available range of stem cell lines, Frist went along with it. He says he did so to support his president, and to see how well it worked and where this rapidly evolving science might go next.

In his speech last week, Frist provided an update. He said the promise of embryonic stem cells is being frustrated, because most of the pre-existing lines have been disappointing, and the few usable ones are deteriorating.

So, Frist said, the president's position needs to be "modified,” basically to the position Frist had taken in July 2001. That also happens to be the thrust of a bill already passed in the House with bipartisan support. Frist says he supports that bill.

In other words, after nearly four years of going along with the president, Frist was ready to go back to where he had been. Given that the president was not willing to go with him, this had to be seen as Frist's breaking away. And so it was.

At the same time, Frist did not say when he would bring that House bill to a floor vote in the Senate. In the Senate this summer, Frist has entertained several alternative bills, including one that would look for ways to study embryonic stem cells without killing the embryo. This bill could peel away just enough votes in the Senate to scuttle the stronger House bill. And in his latest "breakaway" speech, Frist said he was still interested in looking at the alternatives.

But if the position Frist is taking now is technically neither new nor remarkable, the manner in which he took it was stunning. And that may be the real news here, and the memory that lingers.

It took the media entirely by surprise to see Frist not only departing from the White House line but tipping his hand to The New York Times the night before. That guaranteed wide notice for the speech itself and for the implicit breach with the White House.

Frist became the Senate's top gun late in 2002 because he was the president's pick to replace Trent Lott of Mississippi. Frist had not climbed the ladder of leadership jobs and had shown no interest in leading the Senate. Indeed, he has always said he would leave the body in 2006 (and still plans to). Since taking the reins, he has striven to cooperate with the chief executive at virtually every turn — at times to an almost comical degree.

Not only did Frist put an abrupt halt to this history last week, he did it on the final day before Congress left for recess. That upstaged a striking week of achievements in both the House and Senate: an energy bill, a highway bill, a trade pact with Central America and liability protection for gun makers — all key items on the GOP agenda. What should have been a day of celebration for the majority party and its president became a day of internal conflict over stem cells.

So even when one understands what was new and not new in the speech itself, one is left to wonder: What did the surgeon-politician think he was accomplishing by making this speech at this moment?

Perhaps the Senate Majority Leader wanted to set the terms for debate on a key issue before the recess, so members could discuss it with constituents. Some believe Frist was trying to improve the chance of success for the House bill by giving cover to members who want to vote for it. Others think he was absolving himself from blame in case the bill dies, either in the Senate or in conference with the House.

But Frist has shown interest in the 2008 Republican nomination for president. That means he cannot make a move this visible and deliberate without inviting speculation about his political calculus.

Was Frist merely adjusting his stance on the issue, shifting his weight from the foot that's on the pro-life side to the foot that's on the pro-research side? Or was he taking pains to align himself with the 2-to-1 majority who favor embryonic stem-cell research in opinion polls? Had he heard about the TV ads in New Hampshire ripping him on the issue?

Was he still smarting from the Terri Schiavo incident, where his diagnosis based on videotape was at odds with that of examining doctors (and a subsequent autopsy)? In that episode, Frist was seen as catering to social conservatives who are an active force in the Republican nominating process. Now he will be accused of going the other way.

It is also possible that Frist is taking this opportunity to declare some independence from the White House, to strike out on his own as a leader and a policymaker. To be a leader and a policymaker means to risk offending allies and constituencies, including those most important to you.

Worse yet, to change course — or to appear to have changed — is to risk being called inconstant. As the 2004 election proved, the last thing a presidential hopeful wants is to be labeled a flip-flopper.