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Frist Breaks with Bush on Stem-Cell Legislation


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne with Steve Inskeep.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says he will support legislation that would expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The move puts Senator Frist at odds with President Bush, whose policy puts strict limits on the use of stem cells. Speaking today on the Senate floor, Frist said embryonic stem cells have many potential uses.

(Soundbite of Senate speech)

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Majority Leader): In all forms of stem cell research, I see today, just as I saw in 2001, great, great promise to heal. Whether it's diabetes or Parkinson's disease or spinal cord injuries, stem cells offer hope for treatment that other lines of research simply cannot offer.

MONTAGNE: Joining me now is NPR's David Welna.

And good morning, David.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We just heard Senator Frist, of course, on the Senate floor. What else did he say in his speech today?

WELNA: Well, he said that the bill that he's backing to expand the scope of federal funding for stem cell research is one that's already passed in the Republican-run House, despite opposition from the White House, I might add. And Frist said that that House-passed bill needs work. He said that the ethical guidelines for that kind of research have to be spelled out much more clearly and that much more work is going to have to be done in the Senate on the bill. But, you know, only a month ago, Frist indicated that he, too, opposed expanding such funding, and as recently as yesterday he was cautioning his colleagues that this is an issue that can't be rushed into. So we've seen a very, very sudden turnaround on his part.

MONTAGNE: And do you have any idea why?

WELNA: Well, you know, Frist got into some trouble for comments he made on the Senate floor a couple months ago with--regarding Terry Schiavo and what many saw as a kind of doctor's analysis from just looking at videotape of Terry Schiavo's condition, and he got a lot of criticism for that. Some are speculating that maybe he's trying to recover his standing as a good doctor. But, you know, Frist says that what really swayed him was seeing that there simply are not enough stem cell lines or colonies available right now for federally funded research, because, you know, four years ago when President Bush announced his policy limiting such funding to already-established stem cell lines, it was believed then that there were 78 of these stem cell lines to work with, and that number has now dwindled to 22. And Frist says he believes that it's an insufficient number and that the cells aren't healthy enough, really, for research purposes.

So he says now only those embryos that would otherwise be discarded, that would not be implanted in a woman's womb, should be available for extracting stem cells. And there are many of those available right now, and many states, in fact, and other nations are gearing up to do their own funding of stem cell research, so there's kind of a scramble going on for this, and there's also broad public support for this research. And, of course, Frist, who many people believe will try to run for the White House in 2008, can't be oblivious to that. And his move today will probably be seen by many as a sort of throwing his hat in the ring for that race.

MONTAGNE: But how significant, given that he is the Senate majority leader, is this, that Senator Frist should now throw his support behind federal funding for stem cell research?

WELNA: Well, it's tremendously significant, because stem cell legislation in the Senate appeared to be stuck in a logjam of competing proposals over the past few weeks. And since Frist is a heart and lung transplant surgeon, his endorsement of the House bill gives it a tremendous boost in the Senate, although we probably won't see any votes on it there until September at the earliest, since Congress is about to begin a five-week break.

MONTAGNE: And just finally, how was Senator Frist's speech received by his colleagues?

WELNA: Well, he immediately won praise from Democratic leader Harry Reid and Democratic whip Dick Durbin. They both praised Frist for his courage in doing this. But, of course, they probably were also pleased to see Frist possibly on a collision course with the White House, because the White House has said that it would veto this legislation, and Frist has gotten on the other side of that right now.

MONTAGNE: David, thanks very much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's David Welna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

United States & World Morning Edition
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.