Person of the Week: Bill Frist

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A stem cells compromise? Frist

Senator Bill Frist, M.D.— the only surgeon in the Senate — is about as far from pro-choice as you can get. That distinction added striking power to his announcement this week that he supports embryonic stem cell research, albeit within a strictly regulated framework.

"Competing concerns make it extremely difficult to reach consensus on a federal policy in this area," Frist declared Thursday. "Nonetheless, because both embryonic and adult stem cell research may contribute to significant medical and health advancement, research on both should be federally funded within a carefully regulated, fully transparent framework that ensures respect for the moral significance of the human embryo."

The political animal

This was not a deliberation of a purely scientific nature. Frist, a former heart and lung transplant surgeon, carries weight with this White House — because he is a physician, because he has a personal friendship with the President, and also because of his official role as the Senateís Liaison to the White House. With his decision, the Senator has sent a message to President Bush, who is currently embroiled in the most contentious issue of his short term: Should he or should he not give the go-ahead to federal funding for embryonic stem cell research? Frist's proposal gave the White House a keyhole to wiggle through, and also the reassurance that even though Bush will weather some criticism, he'll have support from the conservative wing of the GOP.

That may just be enough for Bush, who has gotten similar messages from other pro-life stalwarts, including Orrin Hatch and Strom Thurmond. According to White House sources, the President is "agonizing" over the stem cell decision, and Fristís declaration may ease his pain. Conversely, plenty of Beltway insiders consider Fristís announcement simply a preview of Bushís ruling; there is absolutely no way, the thinking goes, that someone as politically savvy and ambitious as Frist would put himself so far out such an dangerous limb without assurances that heíd end up on the winning team.

Will there be backlash?

Either way, Fristís was a bold move, sure to enrage some of his more conservative constituents, and not without political risks. If the Senator is seen as urging Bush to break his campaign promise to end the funding, he could suffer for it later at the hands of Republicans angered at the Presidentís choice but helpless to oppose it publicly. And if he is acting as the test balloon for the decision Bush has all but made, Frist could bear the brunt of criticism from research opponents.

Both dire scenarios seem unlikely at this point, for two reasons. One, Frist is highly thought of and greatly admired, especially among the conservative branch of his party. And two, the debate over stem cells, despite its flammable subject matter, has been remarkably civilized, even polite — almost entirely devoid of the accusations and sharp words generally traded during even the briefest dialogue concerning abortion.