MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Here in the US, we end the week with a political surprise. Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist, a staunch anti-abortionist, now supports expanding federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. In a statement he made this morning, the Tennessee Republican broke with President Bush's four-year-old policy on a key issue.
Senator BILL FRIST (Senate Majority Leader; Republican, Tennessee): The limitations that were put in place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases. Therefore, I believe the president's policy should be modified.
BRAND: Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. The speech was surprising not just for its timing, but because Frist has actually been holding off Senate consideration about a House-passed bill that could expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research for several weeks now. Joining us to explain what this might mean for the future of stem cell research is NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner.
JULIE ROVNER reporting:
BRAND: Well, let's begin with a little context. What's been going on in the Senate with this research?
ROVNER: Well, we really need to go back to what's been going on in the House. Now the president, of course, set his policy in August of 2001--basically said there could be federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, but only on lines that were already in existence as of that date. And it's turned out there's only about 22 of those. So in the House, they really wanted to broaden that. The House actually passed a bill over the president's veto threat in May by a fairly strong 238-to-194 vote with a good number of Republicans. Senator Frist said shortly thereafter that perhaps the president's policy needed to be relaxed and that he would schedule a Senate floor debate on this stem cell research question--he didn't promise which bill--for June or July.
BRAND: But the Senate has yet to debate that. Why?
ROVNER: Well, it's very controversial. The president is standing firmly with the Right to Life community that believes that any research that involves the destruction of an embryo is unethical, and therefore there shouldn't be any federal funding of this. There are a number of members of the Senate who want a bill that would ban human cloning, and that's not just cloning with the intention of making a baby, but also the cloning of embryos to derive their stem cells. So it's a related but not the same issue. And Senator Frist basically said that he was going to bring all of these bills to the floor--there were about half a dozen different approaches, including the House-passed bill--and let the Senate sort out from between them. What that did is it kind of dampened support for the House-passed bill and left backers short of the 60 votes that they would need. And so they had not agreed to this, and basically we've been in this standoff for the last couple of weeks.
BRAND: So what he did this morning changes that standoff?
ROVNER: Well, actually, not very much. As our Washington editor, Ron Elving, said this morning, he's standing in the same place; he's just shifted his weight to the other foot. He'd been sort of hinting, as I mentioned, for some time that he believed perhaps there needed to be some expansion of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. But he said again this morning--he reiterated that the Senate needs to work its will on all of these other bills, too, that he doesn't want to restrict it to that one. And he said while he gave sort of a limited endorsement to the House-passed bill, he also said there are--he has major reservations about it that he'd like to see addressed. And that's going to be difficult because what sponsors had really wanted was for the Senate to pass the House bill exactly as the House passed it. That would send it directly to the president and negate the need for a House-Senate conference, which could sort of bog down the whole action.
BRAND: So the big question, I suppose, is why did he do this?
ROVNER: Well, that's clearly the question of the day. Senator Frist has always been caught in the middle on this issue. The senators have long looked to him as the leader on biomedical research issues. He was until this Congress the Senate's only doctor. In fact, it was the president who really followed Senator Frist's position back in 2001. On the other hand, the senator has--is known to have presidential aspirations. He calls himself pro-life. He's been long aligned with the Right to Life forces, and this is something that that side feels very strongly about, so he's always been trying to walk this extraordinarily fine line right in the middle.
BRAND: NPR's Julie Rovner in Washington. Thank you, Julie.
ROVNER: You're welcome.
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