GOP Split Over Stem Cells Could Resonate

The Associated Press
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; 9:44 PM

WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential hopefuls split on the scope of federal involvement in embryonic stem cell research, reflecting a GOP rift on an issue that could have political consequences in this year's midterm elections and in 2008.

"President Bush and I do not differ about the need for strong guidelines governing stem cell research," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. However, the heart surgeon added: "The limit on cell lines available for federally funded research is too restrictive."

Frist and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., abortion opponents who are considering presidential bids, broke with Bush _ and the social conservatives who are crucial to the GOP _ when they voted Tuesday for a bill that would expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Three other potential Republican presidential candidates _ Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and George Allen of Virginia _ opposed the bill.

"We're talking about fragile early human life. It should be treated as sacred," Brownback said.

Bush has promised a veto _ his first. The White House contends the bill would use federal taxpayer dollars to "support and encourage the destruction of human life for research." Congress lacks the votes to override the veto.

In 2001, Bush limited federal spending for embryonic stem cell research to lines then in existence. The bill approved by both the House and Senate would go beyond Bush's restrictions, allowing scientists to use federal money to do research on embryos from fertility clinics. Critics say nascent life would be destroyed. Supporters say lives would be saved because cures for diseases would be discovered more quickly.

The bill has rankled a faction of conservatives within the GOP _ religious voters who oppose abortion and gay marriage and have grown disgruntled with the president's insistence for a guest-worker program in immigration legislation.

Bush, congressional candidates and presidential hopefuls who oppose the bill could end up scoring points with those dissatisfied voters. But the president and his followers also risk alienating many Americans _ and a chunk of their rank-and-file _ who support stem cell research using human embryos.

Recent Gallup polls show that a majority of Americans say such research is morally acceptable and support federal funding for it. Polls found Republicans more conflicted, with just 51 percent calling embryonic stem cell research morally acceptable and only four in 10 favoring federal funding of such research.

GOP strategists say the differences that the stem cell debate exposed doesn't make life any easier for Republicans trying to maintain their grip on Congress, especially moderates in Democratic-leaning districts.

"The focus is not on the Democrats who opposed the president on stem cells, now it's on the divisions in the Republican Party," said Tony Fabrizio, a GOP pollster.

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