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Should President Bush Allow Federal Funding for Embryonic Stem Cell Research?

Aired August 9, 2001 - 19:30   ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Right here on CNN, George W. Bush will go to the governor's house at his ranch in Texas, and deliver what surely is the most important speech in his six month presidency. That eight to 10-minute address will determine whether he will break his campaign promise and permit federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. It also may well define what kind of president and what kind of person he is.

And there will be political consequences. If he breaks his promise, does he risk support from important voter groups, especially church-going Catholics? If he holds firm, does he risk being branded by his opponents as a right-wing extremist?

Late word from CNN senior White House correspondent John King reporting that two sources say President Bush is offering an attempt at compromise. It would allow for federal funding in limited cases, some embryos destined to be discarded anyway could be used in research. Donna Brazile, Al Gore's presidential campaign manager is sitting in for Bill Press on the left tonight -- Donna.

DONNA BRAZILE, GUEST CO-HOST: Thank you so much, Bob. Bill, what have you heard from the White House and are you disappointed with the president's decision?

WILLIAM DONOHUE, PRESIDENT, THE CATHOLIC LEAGUE: Well, what I have heard nothing from the White House, because I don't deal with the White House. I'm not a Republican or a Democrat, I'm an independent. And I praised Bush before, I've condemned him before, and as far as I'm concerned, I'm waiting to see what he has to say tonight.

I know he is a decent man, I know he is basically pro-life, but if he compromises, he needs to explain to people like myself, what did you learn over the last several months that you didn't know before about this very sensitive issue? So, we are going to listen very closely to what he has to say.

NOVAK: Congressman Christopher Shays, if the president tonight breaks his promise that he made just as recently as May, and at the same time, gives a very limited research possibility, does he -- is he a two-way loser on this proposition?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (R), CONNECTICUT: No, he is not a two-way loser, because I think the American people -- whatever position he takes, are going to believe and have a right to believe, that he studied this issue, spent time on it, and in his judgment, he's made the correct decision.

And it is not going to be based on politics. He is not going to try to satisfy you, and he's not going to try to satisfy me or people who think like me. He is going to do what he thinks is right, and then he's going to live with the consequences.

BRAZILE: Bill, let me ask you a question: some recent polls indicate that the majority of Catholics and the majority of Americans who consider themselves pro-life support this issue. What political implications do you believe will happen if the president decides tonight to support limited federal research?

DONOHUE: Well, I don't think it's on the order of his father's major blunder with the "read my lips" basic blunder that he had, because he made that a major issue, and then he turned his back and everybody was angry with him. Embryos don't vote, so Bush might skate a little bit on that one.

But the fact of the matter is, even the people who are in favor of embryonic stem cell research may very well come back a year from now, or two years from now, and say, well, you know, even though we agreed with him, he is a man who breaks his principle. And so, I think there is a certain risk there.

Among active Catholics, among those people who are practicing Catholics, who take this issue very seriously, they are going to be disheartened if he begins to chip away, and then they are also going to be very concerned about what's going to happen -- which I predict will happen -- 12 months, 18 months from now. People are going to be saying, "we need to create embryos, de novo, from the beginning, in vitro, and then do the stem cell research on them, because these earlier research that we have done has proved to be so fruitful."

What is Bush going to say then? And I think this whole thing goes back to the delinquency in this country in 1973, when Justice Harry Blackman said in Roe v. Wade that the Supreme Court should not make -- does not have to address this very difficult issue as to when life begins. They -- we need to have a public discussion. Life begins at conception.

I would like to hear what Congressman Shays says about that, because if it doesn't begin at conception, then you tell me where it -- where was it that all that made you a unique individual, what were the properties, when did it occur, because that is the central issue, and people are not allowed to skirt around the central issue anymore.

BRAZILE: Well, I don't know if Congressman Shays wants to address that issue...

SHAYS: I know what Senator Hatch thinks, a very strong pro-life person. He thinks...

DONOHUE: I asked you.

SHAYS: ... he believes of -- believes it begins in the womb.

DONOHUE: I asked you.

SHAYS: I understand -- I understand what you asked me. See, I think the position -- the pro-life position is to save lives, to heal people, and to prevent death, and that is what stem-cell research does...

DONOHUE: No, no...

SHAYS: ... and the question I would ask you is why would you be opposed to saving lives, and to heal people?

DONOHUE: Well, you are obviously not a pro-life person, because you wouldn't make such a utilitarian argument, because if what you just said was true, congressman, then we the majority can take away the rights of the minority because we might benefit from that. That is not the pro-life position.

SHAYS: But see, I happen...

BRAZILE: But the pro-life -- many people in the pro-life community are split on this issue.


BRAZILE: ... you have senators, as Congressman Shays mentioned, Senator Hatch, Senator Thurmond, I mean, clearly, no friend of the pro-choice community -- they are supporting this issue, they have written letters to the president, 112 university presidents, 80 -- 80 Nobel Peace Prize winners. This clearly is an issue that is in the mainstream of American political life, and many of you on the other side seem to be at odds with saving lives.

DONOHUE: Wait a minute, let me just address this. College presidents -- I mean, hello, Donna, I mean, most of them are in favor of partial-birth abortion! I spent enough years as a college professor. And don't tell me about these Nobel Prize laureates. They won their Nobel Prize in economics. They have no more right to speak on this issue than I do, I'm a sociologist.

But if you want to talk about the moral question here, the moral question gets back to biology 101. If life begins at conception, then embryonic stem cell research is wrong, because you can't do the research without killing the embryo. And I have a simple question: if it doesn't begin at conception, then why do we have the guidelines? Why don't we just go ahead and use the stem cells from fetuses? Why are we even worried about this issue? Why is there a sense of reservation here?

NOVAK: Chris Shays, I want to just explore with you, if I could, sir, President Bush's course on this. During the campaign, he was -- he had a question from the U.S. Catholic Conference about this, and he said quote: "Taxpayer funds should not underwrite research that involves destruction of live human embryos." Now, you may think something during the last campaign was ancient history, but let's just go back to last May. He is now president of the United States, and he writes a letter to the Culture of Life Foundation, and he says -- this is May 18, 2001. Quote: "I oppose federal funding for stem cell research that involves destroying living human embryos," end quote.

SHAYS: And I think...

NOVAK: Did you see -- let me ask the question, Chris.

SHAYS: Sure.

NOVAK: Do you see any wiggle room there?

SHAYS: Yeah, I do. I mean, I think that he found it -- if he had made the decision then, that is the decision he would have made. I think he knows additional information now. I think -- I think he was surprised to see Senator Frist and Orrin Hatch and others say you need to revisit this issue like we have. We are pro-life, but we believe this research needs to continue.

I think one reason they know it needs to continue is the stem cells are destroyed anyway. They are thrown away. I think that's one reason. And I think the other reason is that they basically understand, to a large measure, you want this in the national -- in the national view. You don't want private organizations doing this research. This is basically research that you want some government oversight of, and have it be shared rather than privately done.

NOVAK: I'm -- I'm just trying to trace the president, because I have a great deal of admiration for him, and I'm a little surprised at what he did on this, and after...

SHAYS: I don't think you should be surprised.

NOVAK: After senator -- let me ask you a question, sir -- after Senator Frist made his statement, the president was in England with Tony Blair, the prime minister. He was asked about stem cell research in England, and this is what he had to say.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm going to take my time, because I want to hear all sides, fully understand the opportunities, and to fully think through the dilemmas.


NOVAK: So, what we have had in a course of two months, from May to July, because a couple of Republican senators took a different position, he went from an unequivocal firm position to say I'm going to think this through. Is that a fair description, do you think?

SHAYS: I think it's a very accurate description. I think you need to know, and I think all of us do, that there are significant questions here that this president has spent a lot of time looking at. I have a feeling that at the end, you may not like his decision and I may not like it either. It may be somewhere in between.

But I do know this: he will feel comfortable with this decision, and I think he will be willing to live with the consequences of it, and hold his head up high whatever that decision is.

BRAZILE: Bill, by the way, the president also said that this decision is way beyond politics. Are you prepared to wage political war if this president goes ahead tonight and makes this decision to fund limited research?

DONOHUE: Absolutely not. I'll tell you why, Donna, excellent question. The life issue is a very big one today. It is not just stem-cell research, it is cloning, it is abortion, it is partial birth, it is euthanasia. There is a totality to this. And we will look at it as Catholics and certainly as the Catholic league as putting Bush, as compared to whomever he may run against, in four years, and see where that person comes down to it.

After all, we right now in this country, I don't think too many people know this, we have 15 congressmen and women who have voted on the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, when child has exited the mother from a botched abortion, 15 of the congressmen, the vote was 380 to 15 say it is OK to let that child die, even though it has exited the mother's womb. Thirteen of the 15 were Democrats.

The Democratic party is the party of abortion, the party of partial birth, so, you know I don't think any dancing in the streets is going to take place in the pro-life community about Bush making a mistake here and now we got some friends in the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is very good on civil rights for African-Americans and to gays, but when it comes to the life issue they are not very good.

BRAZILE: Bill, let me just tell you as a Democrat, the Democratic party has a huge tent, and we have pro-life Democrats as well as pro-choice Democrats.

DONOHUE: Well, I hope you make room for the unborn child in your tent.

NOVAK: OK, we are going to have to take a break and when we come back we are going to explore just how much agitation, opposition, and apprehension this decision by the president is going to cause among some of his most enthusiastic supporters.


BRAZILE: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I'm Donna Brazile sitting in for Bill Press. In a little more than an hour President Bush will announce his position on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. After the president's remarks which one of our guests will be happier? , William Donohue of the Catholic League, who opposes the use of federal dollars; or Republican Congressman CHRISTOPHER SHAYS, who supports it -- Bob. NOVAK: Congressman Shays, a lot of people have been wondering where will the pro-life movement go if the president betrays them tonight? And I would like you to look at an ad that ran, "The Bush family secret to a one term presidency," where this life organization -- pro-life organization --compares senior Bush betraying the party on tax increases, and his son now going the same way on stem-cell research. Valid comparison?

DONOHUE: No, not a valid one. You know, this is a president who has done what he said he would do. And he has been willing to take the heat for doing it. And he throws it out, and then we have a debate and then there is some compromise, this is a president who knows he ultimately has to run a country.

But he also knows this: It is absolutely essential that there be research. And he is looking at the moral and ethical, and scientific and religious questions, but ultimately he is going to come down on what he thinks is morally right, with the hope, I believe, of allowing research to happen under certain moral guidelines.

NOVAK: Last -- was there last week, Chris, Judy Brown, of the National -- a national pro-life leader was at the press club. And let's listen to what she said.


JUDY BROWN, THE AMERICAN LIFE LEAGUE: If the president, for any reason whatsoever chooses, to approve any kind of support for this destructive experimentation on human beings, he will no longer have the right to call himself a pro-life president.


NOVAK: Do you think any Republican could get elected president of the United States or reelected, if he is not a pro-life president?

DONOHUE: Well, I think -- you know and this is a little difficult for me, since I'm not in the pro-life movement, I think I'm pro-life in wanting to heal and help and save lives, but I'm not part of this movement and I think there will be extremes on both sides that will be disappointed.

I think that is fairly clear. I mean, to call an embryo human life is her view, it is not mine.

BRAZILE: Bill, let me continue along that line of questioning. Senator Hatch in his letter to the president stated, and I quote, "I find and I hope you will as well, that proceeding with this research is in the best interests of the American public, and is consistent with our shared pro-life, pro-family values."

Now, Senator Hatch, as you well know, is a strong supporter not only of this president, but also a strong supporter of, I'm sure, the pro-life position that you have. Will this impact your decision to support the president's faith-based initiatives? DONOHUE: No, because that is an independent issue, but I like the question because there is a relationship here. There is a constellation of issues, that is to say, he wants to sell himself as the values campaign president. And he wants to talk about the need for government to give some assistance to faith-based initiatives. I'm very much in favor of that. He backed away a little bit on the voucher program which I'm disappointed with, but is a have mentioned before, there is a totality of issues here.

We've got euthanasia, we've got abortion, partial birth, the broader live infant protection act, cloning, stem cell research of embryos, of adults. So, there is not just one issue. I think it's too simplistic to say that the pro-life community is all monolithic, and we are all going to line up single file...

BRAZILE: But bill, do you consider this to be a broken promise? Do you believe that tonight he will break his promise to your organization, and to many others? Do you believe this will hurt him?

DONOHUE: I think that among some people it probably will hurt him to some extent. I do think we are going be looking more closely at what he is going to be doing on these other related issues. And it is always this, Donna, as you well know, it is compared to what? Who is he going to run against in 2004 -- where do they come down on abortion, where do they come down on cloning, where do they come down on these other related issues?

And I think overall, he will be able to win the pro-life vote. Now, there will be some people angry? Yeah, but you know, I think most of us are pragmatists, we are not purists.

SHAYS: I think the real question is, will he offend people if he doesn't allow this research and it is a gigantic yes -- a gigantic yes. We are throwing away these embryos , the stem cells. They could be used for to save lives and to heal people, Alzheimer's, heart disease, I could go through a long list of diseases. There is not a person that doesn't have a family member or a close friend who won't be benefited we think ultimately by this research.

So that is the other side of the coin. Who would he offend if he doesn't allow this research? It will be far more people.

NOVAK: See, congressman, I...

DONOHUE: Let me just say this.

NOVAK: Go ahead. Go ahead, Bill.

DONOHUE: He made one major mistake. Let's say -- I don't care what side you're on, on this. Remember what happened on June -- January the 22nd of 1993. Clinton's in office two days. He takes the Roe v. Wade, 20th anniversary of that horrendous decision on abortion, to stick it to Catholics and evangelicals and Orthodox Jews and Muslims, who believe that life begins at conception. He overturned every single executive order that W's father had passed on a pro-life measure.

Now, what Bush should have done is that two days into his presidency he should have simply said, I'm going to affirm the pledge I made. You know what? It would have been a dead issue, but he dragged it on.

NOVAK: I want ask Congressman Shays about some of the continuing struggles in the Congress on this issue, because I think you're sophisticated enough to know that this speech doesn't end it. For example, the two leaders of your party, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, have made it clear that they are going to, whatever the president does, they are going to put riders on bills against funding for this kind of research, like the old Hyde amendments on funding abortion. This is going to be a very divisive fight in the Republican Party, isn't it?

SHAYS: Potentially it could be devastating, because there are -- there will be pro-life members, though, who will be outraged if that happens, because they have family members that they know can be helped and healed by this research. And they don't buy that it's the same issue of abortion. And to tie it in with abortion and to make it that kind of issue, I think would be very harmful for our party, harmful for the country and harmful for those two leaders to make it an issue.

NOVAK: Let me go on the other side. Senator -- Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle today was at a press conference: in his quiet, somewhat menacing way said that if he didn't like what the president says tonight, they will use the new Senate majority, Democratic majority in the Senate to change that. Now, it's quite obvious from what we hear that the people who really want a lot of research aren't going to like the president's proposal. So you're going to have a fight on the other side in the Senate, aren't you?

You're going to have a fight on both sides, but that's what makes it easy for this president to have taken the time to make sure he's made the right decision. He knows he's going to offend people whatever position he takes. That's why he has to know, he has to have an inner sense that what he's done is right and live with it.

BRAZILE: Bill, I'm an active, churchgoing Catholic, and I'm pro- choice. I know you and I disagree on this issue. But let me ask you a question. Will your organization mount any campaign to close down these (UNINTELLIGIBLE) clinics across the country?

DONOHUE: No, Donna, I will not do that. I want to stay focused on our major objective, which is to fight anti-Catholicism, which even though you and I may disagree on the abortion issue, I think you would agree with me that people like Representative Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Washington state, who tells us Catholics that we have no place at the table on this issue, that's what we're going to fight. Oh, yeah, we'll fight that.

BRAZILE: Well, we'll find common ground on many issues. Bill, I understand. But let me also, Bill, ask you, in terms of your organization tomorrow, will you issue a statement and any condemnation of the president breaking his promise? DONOHUE: No, because again I'm going to take a realistic view of this, OK. I mean, I'm going to take some risk here with some people in the pro-life community. I'm going to look at this realistically. I got Bush here and I got -- who do we got over there on the other side? Hillary and Gore, I know where they are.

I mean, the baby's 80 percent born and they say it's OK to kill it. So I'm not going to forget that, all right? So I'm going to take a look at the whole issue, and Bush comes out a lot better than some of these other people.

NOVAK: All right. That's going to the -- the last word, a positive word for President Bush. Thank you very much, William Donohue. Thank you very much, Congressman Christopher Shays. And Donna Brazile and I will be back with closing comments.


NOVAK: Donna, you're a practical politician and a good one. You know that the Democratic Party, a presidential candidate, has to be pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control, pro-feminist, and in the Republican Party you must be pro-life. So George W. Bush is playing with fire. If he is going to lose the pro-life designation, he's going to be in trouble in the Republican Party.

BRAZILE: Well, you know, Bob, he campaigned as a different kind of Republican. He campaigned and said that he would be a compassionate conservative perhaps. And now, he's making a downpayment on that campaign slogan.

NOVAK: But he campaigned as a pro-life Republican, and as we showed he came out against stem cell research. Didn't say maybe, didn't say possibly. He said, I am against federal funding.

BRAZILE: But this is about saving lives as well, and this an issue that transcends politics. And I'm glad he's perhaps listened to his wife and others on this issue.

NOVAK: Maybe you don't have the best interests of the Republican candidate in mind.

BRAZILE: From the left, I'm Donna Brazile. Good night from CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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