Frist turns to Enzi for help on stem-cell funding

A second-term senator has put his fingerprint on legislation governing federal research money for stem cells despite an early decision by the Republican leadership to circumvent his committee.

Senate Health, Labor, Education and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) has been able to seize control of the legislation as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) seeks to finesse his way through a political minefield on embryonic-stem-cell research.

Confronted with the prospect of a defeat on the Senate floor for an issue of high priority to the White House — and to religious groups that Frist needs to court if he decides to seek the White House in 2008 — the majority leader turned to Enzi last month for help finding a way out, a HELP Committee aide said.

There was speculation last month that the Senate quickly would pass the House-passed bill on funding for embryonic-stem-cell research, setting up President Bush’s first veto. But that strategy has apparently been set aside.

The door for the HELP Committee chairman to make his mark on the bills opened wide when Frist needed a way to fulfill his promise to permit votes on the bill he opposed without betraying the interests of the White House and groups that oppose abortion rights.

Enzi was tasked with corralling his GOP HELP Committee colleagues to develop legislative language that would emphasize the promise of theoretical means of extracting stem cells that could be as valuable as embryonic stem cells without destroying human embryos. The bill could provide political cover to Republicans who oppose the destruction of embryos but may be concerned about lining up against public sentiment.

Enzi had “significant input into this product,” the HELP Committee aide said of the alternative stem-cell-research bill. Enzi also will manage the floor debate on the legislation.

Frist has promised floor consideration of a bill to relax a 4-year-old Bush administration policy limiting federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research to cell lines that existed at the time he set the policy. A bipartisan group of senators claims to represent at least 60 votes for the bill. Supporters had thought the vote might take place this week, but the alternative stem-cell bill seems to have delayed the vote.

The White House does not want the bill, which passed the House in May, to be approved by the Senate and set up the unappealing prospect of forcing Bush to veto a bill that the majority of the country favors, according to polls.

Frist has been seeking to undercut support for funding research on embryonic stem cells by promoting a measure based in part on the findings of the President’s Council on Bioethics. The panel issued a report in May that outlines four proposed methods of deriving stem cells as useful as embryonic cells without destroying embryos. Studies are preliminary at best, but the theories suggest the prospect of research not associated with abortion or human cloning.

The House GOP leadership attempted a similar tactic by setting up a side-by-side vote with the embryonic-stem-cell bill and another to fund research into umbilical-cord-blood cells. But to the House leadership’s dismay, the embryonic-stem-cell measure passed, 238-194. The House’s experience suggests a more compelling alternative than cord-blood research would be needed to attract votes away from the bill to ease restrictions on federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells.