Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is breaking with President George Bush by supporting embryonic stem cell research — a move that would finesse Frist’s image among some voters, sour his Presidential prospects with others and set the stage for a potentially ugly confrontation between the President and Congress.

The catalyst for a position shift is a bill that would a bill to expand federal financing for embryonic stem cell research. Frist’s decision to back it would help its chances for passage — and set the stage for a White House veto. The New York Times reports:

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.

On the other hand, as this news story is sweeping the news cycle, another story reports that Frist is angering Democrats by refusing to bring the bill up now. The Pittsburg Post-Gazette:

In the rush to pass legislation before the August recess, Democrats made a final — and unsuccessful — attempt yesterday to force Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to bring up Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s legislation expanding federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The House passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act with the support of 50 Republicans two months ago, but momentum to pass an identical measure in the Senate appears to have sputtered to a halt.

Frist’s refusal yesterday to consider the bill means the measure will not come up before September…..

Every day we delay consideration of this bill is another day we deny hope to millions of Americans and people throughout the world with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injuries, heart disease, diabetes, to name only a few,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., after attempting to bring up Republican Specter’s legislation and an uncontroversial measure that would provide federal funding to harvest stem cells from umbilical cord blood. That bill has also passed the House.

But Frist, a heart surgeon who controls the agenda as majority leader, has said he will not bring up Specter’s legislation unless he can get all 100 senators to agree to “clean” votes on six or seven pieces of legislation relating to bioethical issues — meaning senators would vote on each bill without offering amendments sometimes used to kill legislation.

“I’m not going to give up on the stem cell issue because the research is hugely promising,” the Tennessee Republican said yesterday after explaining that he had been unable to get an agreement. “I hope that after we get back … we will be able to address the issue.”

Will that still hold?

Or will be see Frist SAYING he supports stem cell research — and effectivey BLOCKING it?

Is that outside the realm of believability? Not really.

Out of all the Republicans reported to have aspirations for running for President in 2008 Frist has been the one to emerge with an almost Nixonian willingness to recreate perceptions of him with dramatic, jaw-dropping, seemingly graceless political moves.

The “old Bill Frist” was the one of the well-liked, (relatively) young surgeon backed by President George Bush, as one of Bush’s allies to replace ousted Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

Then the “new Bill Frist” who reportedly daydreamed of moving into the White House began cozying up to social conservatives with a series of moves that can be described as at best strong political shifts to shed a moderate image and, at worst, a series of political makeovers akin to Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeries.

Is this the “NEW old Bill Frist” — who will back a stem cell research bill?

Or are we really seeing the “NEW NEW Bill Frist” — who will say he backs the bill but find ways to keep it coming up for a vote so he can go into the primaries saying he’s for it but actually prevented it from coming to a vote?

Of course, as with anything dealing with Frist, don’t expect his new position to be conceded to be a major a shift from his most previous position (see his statements on the Terri Schiavo video tape and what he said later). The AP:

A likely presidential candidate in 2008, Frist has been courting religious conservatives who helped make Bush a twice-elected president and generally consider embryonic stem cell research a moral equivalent to abortion. But the announcement, coming just a month after Frist said he did not support expanded financing “at this juncture,” could help him with centrist voters.

With those political realities in mind, Frist argued that his positions on stem cell research and abortion were not inconsistent.

The reality: if Frist does deliver this position statement today, it IS indeed a shift.

And it will be significant in several ways:

  • More than ever it will isolate this administration on this issue.
  • On several issues this administration has been accused of igorning scientific research on issues it doesn’t agree with due to its ideological or theological beliefs. This won’t help counter that perception.
  • Frist, who has disappointed far right and social conservatives due to his ineffectiveness on several issues, will be no shoo-in for their support in the 2008 primaries.
  • Frist could perhaps score some points with centrist Republicans. But on balance he has been so high-profile on several controversial issues and positions pressed by social conservatives and the White House that his earlier image makeover was effective: he probably will never regain the centrist support he had when he first became Majority Leader. His image has changed from not just a Republican but a foot soldier of a specific wing of the party.
  • It may enhance his ability as Majority Leader, in the sense that it may increase his believability among Senate Democrats and he may be able to work with them a bit better on some issues.

But in the end all of this is going to depend on Frist delivering the reported speech and not fudging it over with so many qualifiers alter that it becomes virtually meaningless — and Frist not emerging as someone who is continues to block a vote on this issue.

If he has changed position and remains a roadblock to the issue then little while have changed except a position on paper.

A Few Other Voices (these are excerpts so please read their entire posts):

Daily Kos:

Frist’s endorsement of the bill will most likely end the Senate stalemate on the bill, and as the article says, his decision might sway undecided Republicans in favor of the bill.

If the bill passes, what will Bush do? He has sworn that he will veto all such legislation. Will this put Frist on Bush’s shit list? Or is Frist just doing what any Republican considering a presidential run in 2008 would do: distance themselves from an increasingly unpopular sitting Republican president?

James Joyner:

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….

….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.

Americablog:”Flip flop alert!…Last time I checked Dr. Frist, an embryo, by definition, comes AFTER conception. These guys are just a bunch of clowns…”
Southern Appeal:”Stick a fork in Senator Bill Frist, he’s done.”
NRO’S The Corner: “You’re So Over, Man.”
Glenn Reynolds:”I’m with Frist.”
Roger Simon:

It’s not just my own support of embryonic stem cell research that makes me applaud Bill Frist’s announcement of his similar support this morning. I applaud breaking with partyline thinking in general – “My President,” right or wrong, is just a plain bad idea. “My party chairman,” right or wrong, is even worse!

….Someone like Dr. Frist is capable of backing embryonic stem cell reserach while being an abortion opponent who believes life begins at conception. He makes a distinction you may disagree with, but he has clearly thought it through. Good for him….

Ace of Spades has a long, excellent analysis. Here’s a small part 4 U:

Let me just say as a blue-state conservative I really don’t get this whole deal, and I think it’s one of the more objectionable parts of the current conservative platform.

These embryos — correct me if I’m wrong — are slated to be destroyed anyway, right? They won’t be kept in cold storage forever. Or else the stem cells come from aborted fetuses which are dead already, right?

–On the other side of the spectrum, Brendan Nyhan also has a superb analysis that MUST be read in full. He asks:”Frist has been assiduously courting Christian conservatives for years in anticipation of a presidential run. So why did he decide to burn them now on a litmus test-type issue?” Then he lays out the possibilities for you (and they make sense).
–Uncorrelated:”The showdown on stem cell research is long overdue. Bush may finally actually use his veto pen. As expected, he’ll be wrong to do so, but at least it will demonstrate that he hasn’t forgotten he has one. And we can look forward to 2009 when a new president will be in office to finally sign the bill that will reach his or her desk then, as this issue isn’t going away.”
John Cole:”Perhaps Bill Frist isn’t running for President after all.”
Chris Mooney:”I can read the evidence both ways. Yeah, maybe Frist is going back to his doctor roots and what he actually believes. On the other hand, maybe he’s sick of seeming like the religious right’s lapdog on every single issue and sees the stem cell debate as a chance to tack to the center. After all, standing up for the RR on matters of science didn’t really get him very far in the Schiavo case, now did it?

Either way, the upshot for Bush is the same: With Frist’s betrayal, the president’s shoddy, indefensible, and arbitrary stem cell policy looks even worse than it did before.”
Bull Moose (one of TMV’s favorites) applauds Frist and writes, in part:

Frist’s move is a significant blow to the religious right. Frist is no rank and file Republican defying the dictates of Dobson, but rather the Senate leader with Presidential ambitions. Frist’s apostasy on stem cells could presage a real donnybrook within the GOP in ’08.

Dr. Frist’s ascension to the Senate leadership was largely a creation of Karl Rove. Frist’s breaking ranks could mean that the Rovian theory of base politics is weakening. Indeed, Rove’s influence may be waning among Capitol Hill Republicans. Unless the legislation is modified before it reaches the White House, W. must veto the bill or earn the wrath of the religious right.

Political Jackass:”Bill Frist is the last person I would expect to want to save lives, so this is really good news for both the stem cell research world as well as many Republicans who I think will identify with Frist and lose more trust in Bush over this…”
Crooks and Liars:

Was Frist worried that his alignment with the Circus Clowns has hurt his chances at a run for the White House? The Schiavo matter didn’t help him and the gang of fourteen made him look even weaker. Was this a calculated move? Probably. It still is good news for stem cell research overall no matter what his political motivations are. I congratulate him on his flippiness. Ted Kennedy has also sang him songs of praise. Steve has more on what he calls the flip-flop-flip.

The Yellow Line:”Of course, it’s hard to see Frist’s move on this and not consider the political ramifications. Often touted as a potential candidate for the 2008 presidential election, Frist’s stem-cell position moves him away from the socially conservative base and towards the center. This is an intriguing move indeed, since Frist has often been assumed to be not only a rigid social conservative but also the man Bush would most like see replace him. The fallout over this will be interesting to watch.”
Scrappleface (satire READ IT ALL):

(2005-07-29) — Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist today announced his support for expanding federally-funded stem cell research in hopes of finding a cure for his own addiction to tax dollars.

“Although I am a conservative, my addiction drives me to steal money from average Americans and spend it on my pet projects,” said Sen. Frist. “Perhaps government-owned scientists will be able to conquer this unfortunate condition by slicing up human embryos.”

–Political activist/analyist John Aravosis at Americablog says Frist screwed Bush and the religious right but notes “you don’t see George Bush bending any arms to help the religious right on this one (you’ve got vote your conscience, he told Frist). What? If that’s the response Bush gives to every religious right priority then almost no one in Congress is going to support them. Bill Frist, why do you hate American’s Taliban?”
–The Political Teen has THE VIDEO of Frist’s speech on the Senate floor announcing his (newest) stand. He writes:”Frist made a compelling argument on the floor today and I do think it will pass in the Senate and the Congress. The President will veto it, however I do not think Congress or the Senate will be able to override that veto.”
–A MUST READ IN FULL POST by Augustine on Red State has sections such as this:

Today, on the floor of the Senate, Dr. Frist betrayed the conservative movement, President Bush, the history of the Republican Party, and thousands of defenseless Americans. In doing so, he effectively ended his brief flirtation with the Presidential nomination of the GOP – and if this is a just world, he may also have effectively ended his leadership role within the party in anything but title.

There is simply no justifiable reason for Dr. Frist to have changed his position on such an important matter, except in some crass attempt to appeal to a biased media. After years of claiming to be a pro-lifer – after accepting money, support, and applause from the pro-life community – Dr. Frist throws them overboard for the sake of The New York Times….

There is only one explanation for today’s Senate floor flip-flop: Bill Frist is a man without principles. He does not deserve polite acceptance of his treachery by any Republican. And any party that truly believes in a culture of life does not tolerate such men in positions of leadership. It should not tolerate Dr.Frist.

The Boston Globe
Our post On Bill Frist’s alliance with a controversial social conservative group
Washington Post: Is Frist Up to Task Of Being President?
goodguys4bush.16676869″>Bill Frist For President 2008 magnet

TAGS: Bill Frist, stem cell, politics, Republicans, Congress, 2008 Presidential race

JOE GANDELMAN, Editor-In-Chief
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