Frist Hailed on Stem Cells

By E.B. Solomont

Published August 05, 2005, issue of August 05, 2005.
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Erstwhile Christian conservatives are criticizing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist for endorsing a bill that would expand federal support for stem-cell research, but Jewish organizations are hailing the Tennessee Republican.

Frist’s decision — outlined in a lengthy July 29 speech on the Senate floor — came as a surprise to the bill’s supporters, who had feared in recent weeks that Frist would prevent the measure from coming to a vote. Just weeks ago, a Frist staffer told delegates to Hadassah’s national convention in Washington that his boss would oppose the measure, which loosens some of the restrictions placed by Bush in 2001 on federal funding of stem-cell research.

Some Christian conservative leaders have slammed Frist over his Senate speech, with a few suggesting that his position cost him an invitation to speak at an upcoming rally in support of Bush’s judicial nominees. Frist, however, has been cheered by Jewish organizations across the political and religious spectrum, including Hadassah, the Orthodox Union and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The Senate is expected to vote on the measure in September. If it passes, Bush is expected to veto the bill.

Seeking to bypass a confrontation with Bush, Jewish organizations had said that in the coming weeks they will expend little energy on lobbying or criticizing the White House. But instead, Jewish organizational officials then said they will focus their energy on helping to build the two-thirds majorities required in both houses of Congress to override a presidential veto, should Bush reject the measure.

Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said last weekend on the CBS news program “Face the Nation” that he has about 62 votes lined up, five short of a veto-proof majority.

Stem-cell research, which advocates say could produce cures for a wide range of diseases, has found tremendous support across the religious and political spectrum in the Jewish community.

The Orthodox Union has spoken out in favor of stem-cell research and the current bill, in sharp contrast to Christian conservative groups that say any destruction of human embryos — even ones outside the fetus slated to be discarded — represents the taking of a human life. The O.U.’s executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, met with Frist to discuss the issue, as have other Jewish groups.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said that the stem-cell issue has been his group’s number-one issue this year. Hadassah made it a centerpiece of its convention last month, which featured 1,500 delegates branching out on Capitol Hill to hold 200 meetings with lawmakers and their staffers.

“From a purely tactical standpoint, this is the time to reach out to members of Congress, because they will be voting on the legislation,” said Marla Gilson, director of Hadassah’s Washington Action Office. “Our message to everyone was the same. We support stem-cell research.”

In May, Hadassah hosted Frist at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, where the doctor was briefed on scientific advances at the research facility, including stem-cell research. Afterward, Hadassah officials said, Frist was heard praising Hadassah’s initiatives, including during a speech in May at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Even days after Frist’s recent announcement, Jewish activists who support the measure were struggling to explain his apparent shift on the issue.

“You never can really quantify or evaluate what changes a person’s mind, or what influences their decision-making,” Gilson said. But, she added, meetings with constituents “days before a key vote has got to have an impact.”

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