Bill Frist Changes Mind, Favors Stem Cell Funding

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a heart surgeon by profession and widely considered to be running for president in 2008, has changed course and will now support expanded federal funding for stem cell research.

Senate’s Leader Veers From Bush Over Stem Cells (NYT | RSS)

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.

It may well be that politics, electoral or otherwise, was not central to Frist’s thinking here. Perhaps Frist has honesty changed his mind here–or that this reflects his true views all along and that he has decided that he can no longer justify backing the Bush compromise.

Regardless, this has profound political ramifications. Frankly, this isn’t an issue that particularly energizes me. Given that abortion is both legal and widespread, it seems silly to me not to utilize the discarded embroyoes for research. On the other hand, I understand the slippery slope argument of opponents.

I haven’t studied the polls on this one but suspect most Americans support embryonic stem cell research because they believe the touted miracle cures for Parkinson’s, diabetes, and other ailments are within grasp. It may well be, though, that this is a case where the minority is much more passionate, organized, and likely to make this a key voting issue.

My guess is that Frist has little chance of getting the nomination but that he would make an interesting general election candidate. His conservative credentials are pretty weak compared to those of his likely opponents and there are several sexier “moderate” candidates out there, John McCain and Rudy Guiliani most prominent among them.

Frist is unlikely to attract the support of the most ardent pro-lifers in the Republican primaries. If, somehow, he managed to nonetheless win the nomination, though, a more centrist position on this issue would be helpful in the fall campaign against the Democratic candidate. Whether this policy change is a considered choice in light of a similar assessment on Frist’s part, I don’t know.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Congress, Health, The Presidency, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. The question whether the research is “good” or “bad”, the question is whether tax dollars should be spent on R&D when there is plenty of Venture Capital out there.

    If this technology had any real hope of being a miracle cure, VCs would be throwing money at it hand over fist – as would the major pharma companies. Biotech is one of the hottest areas today for venture capital. Where are the smart people putting their money in this area?

    I pesonally think this whole topic is over-hyped. Like Artificial Intellegence, it is something of a pipe dream. But it has been sold lock , stock and barrel to the point where California voters okayed billions of dollars in state bonds to finance research in this area – which will cure no one in the near future, if ever – and at the same time voted down a bond for new hospitals, which would help thousands of of people today.

  2. Pug says:

    That’s right. Tax breaks, loan guarantees and subsidies should be reserved for the oil industry that is, if you haven’t noticed yet, struggling to survive.

    We’re gonna produce our way to energy independence with the oil we have right here in this country!

    Jeeez. I’ve worked in the energy industry for twenty-five years and, believe me, we’re more than happy to accept the largesse of taxpayers, but I wonder how in the world they sell this stuff to you folks.