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The President's Embryonic Stem Cell Politics

Aired September 6, 2001 - 19:30   ET



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have made this decision with great care, and I pray it is the right one.


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, did president Bush do his homework before announcing his stem cell decision? Or is this simply an inexact science?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, "CROSSFIRE." On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak. In the "CROSSFIRE: Republican Congressman Mark Foley from Florida and Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to "CROSSFIRE. Just when you thought one problem was solved, it's not. Less than a month ago, August 9, President Bush announced his decision on stem cell research.

Federal funding would be permitted, said the president, but only on 64 existing stem cell lines. Even that limited number didn't satisfy everyone. But yesterday, in testimony before Congress, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson admitted those 64 aren't available after all; only 24 or 25 are available today. Which stirred up even more criticism, with some Senate critics -- including some Republicans -- insisting that's simply not enough for medical research.

So it's back to the drawing board on stem cell research. Did the president get his facts wrong? Did he make the right decision? Should Congress now get involved? Bob?

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Congresswoman, I wonder if you agree that statement made by my co-host Bill Press last night, that either the president or the people advising him intentionally meant to mislead America? Do you make that charge?

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE (D), TEXAS: Well, I make the charge that the president was well intentioned but he was misled, and his advisers were wrong. He acted wrongly, he may have been all the world's best friend. But he did the wrong thing. And that is unfortunate for medical research and for people of this country. PRESS: Let me repeat if I may, Congressman, this -- the president said was the most important decision of life. He said 64, now we know it's only 25. Clearly, he was trying to mislead the American people. And he got caught.

REP. MARK FOLEY (R), FLORIDA: No he didn't. Now, I have met more scientists in Congress in the last week than I could have ever imagined. Everybody is an expert on stem cells. I think the president opened the door, gave us an opportunity to pursue science. And normally we wait for the scientists to report back. But politicians now are jumping into it -- as expert witnesses -- on what stem cells will provide in research. It's wrong and I think we should be patient.

NOVAK: Congresswoman Jackson Lee, the "Washington Post" is not exactly a cheerleader for this administration. So it is very interesting what they said in their editorial the other day. They said, quote, " The NIH canvass -- that's the National Institutes of Health canvass -- makes clear both that the president had not made the number up, and that it probably overstated somewhat the number of lines that will eventually be available to research. The short-term effects of Bush's -- Mr. Bush's policy will be that a lot of important research gets funded using these lines and that's for the good."

Now why in the world can't the Democrats put aside the partisanship for a minute and accept the idea that it isn't a question of whether you have 64 or 25 or 40, it's whether you have enough.

JACKSON LEE: My good friend, frankly, I believe that the "Washington Post" likewise has not gotten its science credentials. I respect them, but it's well known that the broader the number of stem cells available, the greater the research. We also realize that there may be contamination, and a real problem in the extent of the research that can be done.

And the better choice would have been the regulations passed in August of 2000 that indicated a broad depth of allowing for stem-cell research to go on with the permission of the giver of the embryo, so that this was not where you are snatching embryos and recklessly doing this research, but it was regulated. I'm sorry the president did not get advice from scientists and medical professionals who encouraged -- or would encourage the right away to do this was to open it up and allow that stem-cell research go forward.

NOVAK: You know, Tom (sic) -- I'm sorry.

FOLEY: I read a lot of the quotes in the paper of scientists -- noted experts -- and most of them couldn't say definitively whether the stem cell lines would or would not be usable. So right now we even have the scientific community still out determining whether they are helpful, useful and that is why I urge patience. None of us could absolutely explain some of the basic research we're talking about, particularly those elected to office. So we should allow the scientists to pursue their vocation.

NOVAK: With all due respect, there is an attitude given by a lot of people that as soon as we get 64 stem cells or 100 stem cells -- lines -- we're going to start solving all these diseases, curing these diseases. Tommy Thompson, Secretary of HHS -- who I think is a great public servant -- personally, was great governor of Wisconsin, I think he has been very effective -- I think he knows more about this than the four of us put together. I want you to hear what he says about curing diseases.


TOMMY THOMPSON, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: So many people you know, want to jump to the conclusion, you know, that we have the cure for Alzheimer's, for cancer, for Parkinson's. It just doesn't go that fast. You've got to do the basic research. And that's what these stem cell lines are available for, that's what the federal funding is going to be used for, is the basic research. And there is plenty of lines available.


NOVAK: Isn't that the point? I mean, if you didn't want to make political points, Miss Jackson Lee, you wouldn't be doing this, would you?

JACKSON LEE: Absolutely not. You know what I'm trying to make points about? I'm trying to make points about people who are suffering from paralysis, Parkinson's disease...

NOVAK: You can't solve it tomorrow.

JACKSON LEE: I have the greatest respect for Governor Thompson and the position he has, but I'm not sure of his scientific credentials. Let me tell you, it's well-known that if you have a broad opportunity to do this extensive research, meaning, a wide variety of selection of the stem cells that will allow you to do the research.

Certainly if you are going to buy a car, give you the benefit of being able to select a car that will run from 100 cars, versus a car that will run from only two cars, if you are given the choice. I think the people who are paralyzed, sitting in wheelchairs today, would have rather for the President of United States to give them the opportunity to do the right kind of research.

PRESS: Congressman, here is what puzzles me: how this well oiled White House political machine can come off looking like such a bunch of amateurs? I have great respect for Tommy Thompson, too, but I think sometimes he gets it wrong. I'd like you to listen to the secretary on August 10 -- the day after the president's speech -- and then listen to him yesterday. Here we go.


THOMPSON: The more than 60 stem cell lines are diverse, they are robust and they are viable for research.


THOMPSON: We have 25, 24, 25 adequate right now, so I am confident that that is enough.


PRESS: All right, let me take the more charitable view. 64, 24. OK, let's say they weren't deliberately trying to mislead. Obviously they didn't do their homework.

FOLEY: I think they may have gotten further information. Certainly, again this is not an exact science. Some of those lines that they believed were available may not have been conclusively available for the full testing some would do. But let me also remind you, we do not limit private research in stem cells. And if there is money to be made, private companies, laboratories, will investigate, invest, and provide those cures for those same diseases -- because they could make billions of dollars if they can come up with a cure for Alzheimer's Disease.

JACKSON LEE: That's the problem.

NOVAK: What's the problem?

JACKSON LEE: That's the problem. Frankly, we all realize that the jump-start to this kind of research being done in the right way is government involvement. That's really the key. All of the renowned scientists say that the government funding will allow the kind of pure and definitive research that is necessary, the collaborative research.

This is not about who is going to invest and make billions of dollars. It's about helping poor -- when I say "poor," helping people who are sick, who need to have the ability for this kind of research to bring about a cure. And the fact that the White House and administration is now drawing back and denying that collaboration, by either tainted stem cells or limiting stem cells with only 25 now, instead of 64, cuts into research.

PRESS: A quick response and then a follow-up question.

FOLEY: Under current tax law we are providing that incentive through research and development tax credits so they can pursue this, with some federal assistance, through the tax code.

PRESS: Now here is what may surprise you. I didn't believe the president when he said 64, and you know what? I don't believe him when he says 24 or 25. How do we know? So my question to you is, another month from now when they say, "Well, there are only three available," do you think the president is going to least be man enough to stand up and admit he was wrong and modify his decision?

FOLEY: The president came into this with a genuine concern for people's health. He had a sister die of leukemia. I think he was sincere the night he gave that address. I believe in my heart he gave the number that he believed was accurate. Now listen, Bill, he would not have come on national TV making up numbers simply to pass the test of the evening. I think he gave us a chance...

PRESS: I don't believe that.

FOLEY: Let me tell you something. The pro-life community, rabidly against any decision stem cells. So I applaud him and I hope Sheila will do the same. Because at least we've opened the door. Congress can in fact widen that door at some point, but again, I think we have to be patient.

NOVAK: I hope you will brush aside my co-host's outrageous demagoguery in suggesting that all these are made up and the 25 is now the minimum number. Again, I would like you to listen to Governor Thompson, and prior -- and let's all try to understand what he is saying, because -- I hope even Bill listens to it. Let's just listen to it.

PRESS: I've heard him.


THOMPSON: Under optimum conditions, six months, eight months to really develop an embryonic stem cell line from the point of derivation to the point when it becomes what we classify and characterize as a viable embryonic stem cell line. But during this process, you can still do the basic research. And there are 64 lines that meet the president's criteria for federal funding.


NOVAK: It doesn't have to be a fully-developed stem cell line or colony to do the basic research. So this numbers game my friend -- my Joe McCarthy-like friend there playing around with the numbers -- it's meaningless, isn't it?

JACKSON LEE: Numbers are very important, but the...

PRESS: Thank you.

JACKSON LEE: ...the consistency and the purity of the research is very important as well. Let me just say this. I started out by saying the president was well intentioned but he is misled and obviously, he is misguided in terms of what we are trying to do.

NOVAK: What do you mean he is misled? Who misled him? Is there some evil force? Is there a Deep Throat in the White House?

JACKSON LEE: I would never call any group evil forces, but I certainly think the heavy weight of the pro-life forces are -- force the administration to try and find an unhappy compromise. And that's what they found. Rather than fall on side of people suffering from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's and paralysis, they try to narrow the focus, narrow the pool, and I think what happened is we have found that it is now blowing up in their face, because now we are going from 64 to 25. It is not enough.

PRESS: I mean, do you agree that numbers are meaningless? The president says, you know, we got 64 -- you're not even supposed to believe him? Is that -- is this a new math in this town? Is this the new credibility in this town? You don't even have to listen to what he says?

NOVAK: Can I ask a question, please?

PRESS: I'm asking my question. I can't believe it.

FOLEY: I think numbers matter.

PRESS: Thank you.

FOLEY: But I don't believe he misled people. Again, we're looking at this as an emerging and evolving science. It takes time.

NOVAK: OK. We're going to have to take a break. And when we come back, believe it or not, we will look at the politics of this stem cell question.


NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. So you thought President Bush ended the great stem cell debate with his compromise a month ago. Not a chance. Congress, just back from its August break, immediately began sparring over federal funding of this potential life-saving research. Is it a matter of science, religion or just plain politics?

We're talking to two members of Congress: Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who thinks President Bush may have misled the country on stem-cell research; and to Republican Mark Foley of Florida, who supports the president. Bill Press.

PRESS: Congressman, you hinted at something in our first segment. I want to come back to you about, and that is the politics of all of this. I mean, I do believe the president -- knowing the story of his sister -- I think he wanted to do right thing. He calls himself a compassionate conservative, I will take him at his word. But I think he couldn't do the right thing because he was looking over his shoulder at the religious right, the conservative religious right in his own party. And that is what -- that is truly what shaped his decision isn't it? It was pure politics.

FOLEY: I disagree. He could have said no. He said no, I will not invade this area of science. I don't believe it's accurate. I'm worried about, you know, all kinds of things. He could have said no that evening, and been better off politically within our own party. But he chose to, I think, give us a chance, again, to open the door of science, peer in the window, and see if there's useful things that we can learn from this procedure.

PRESS: Let's see what you are going to do with this chance. The president says, "this is my decision." We've got different branches of government, and you don't sit back on anything else up there in the Congress, the House or Senate, and say, "We'll just let the president handle it because we don't know anything about it." This is the opportunity -- you just said the door ought to be open wider -- so isn't it now time for Congress to act, since we know the president wasn't able to?

FOLEY: Absolutely not, because the scientists themselves...

PRESS: You're contradicting yourself.

FOLEY: The scientists have not even had a chance to work on the stem cell lines. People are advancing the answer before they listen to the question. We've got to give the scientists a chance. We are not doing so. When scientists come back in six months or eight months say this not going to work, this not enough -- then we can open the door. Embryonic stem cells, umbilical cords -- these are all things that could be used and successfully harvested for stem cells in great potential. So let's not just assume that his decisions closed the door on the future discussion.

NOVAK: Sheila Jackson, you may not know this, but I watch Congress carefully. I watch what you people say. I even watch you a lot. And you are not the worst of them. But I see the Democratic members of Congress. They want -- they want to do the best they can to make this president fail. They didn't think he was elected fairly. There was just a constant pounding on him. And let's be frank, all this whether it's 64, 25, 47 -- these are, as Congressman Foley said, evolving science. This is all a part of the attempt to undermine the presidency of George W. Bush, isn't it?

JACKSON LEE: I wish it was as easy as that, but you are absolutely wrong. Frankly, the members of Congress, both House and Senate, have spent their time studying this issue for a very long time. And I am confused about my colleague's representations, let the science prevail, let's find out about the science. We have known about the science for a number of years. We knew about the science in August of 2000 when the Clinton administration did the right thing and allowed for federal funding for stem cell research.

But now all of a sudden, with the new election of an individual who is completely entrapped by the religious right and people who cannot understand the global issue of saving lives, of enhancing people's lives, who have Parkinson's, Alzheimer's -- now I'm very gratified that you can't point this to be partisan, because Republican senators are offering legislation to say enough is enough.

We have to take charge. We've got to get the stem cell expanded even beyond 64. The 24 may be contaminated. It is necessary to move forward. It's not political, it's saving lives. And again, let me just finish by saying that the president, I still say, misled -- well intentioned, but given bad advice.

FOLEY: Listen. The president, again, has moved carefully in this area. If the -- President Clinton's decision was so noble and so correct, show me some documentation on where that research went with his authorization. Where are we? Do we have anything?

JACKSON LEE: Did you let us start? We started, it was approved August the 25 in 2000.

FOLEY: And then what happened? JACKSON LEE: And then it was reneged on in just a short period of time.

FOLEY: It hasn't been reneged, he's allowed to it continue.

JACKSON LEE: It's limited to a short number as opposed to the way we arranged in 2000.

NOVAK: With all due respect, Congresswoman, when you spit out the words "religious right," just as Bill does, you sound pretty partisan to me. Can you envision the fact that there are a lot of people out there -- a lot of millions of your fellow Americans, who do have religious questions about using embryonic stem cells? I am one of them, and do you think the president has gone too far? Can you believe that perhaps they're not members of some fascist society, but God-fearing Americans, who thinks that the scientists can go too far?

JACKSON LEE: I welcome their disagreement, and respect the fact that they have the right to that disagreement. In fact, let me right now say that we are all against cloning, which has been something that has been confused with stem-cell research.

But in the nature of the federal government, it has to make choices, choices that represent the greater part of good. The greater part of good is to save lives and to enhance the quality of life. And it is clear that there is a distinction between taking embryos out that are implanted for pregnancy, versus discarded embryos that would require the permission of those who may already -- for good health research.

FOLEY: How far do you go? Do you pay women to have abortions to get stem cells?

JACKSON LEE: Absolutely not! And that is not what is occurring. Nobody is talking about that.

FOLEY: That is an open-ended question.

PRESS: We have less than a minute left. So I want to get to the heart of the question, which is right on the table right now. And Senator Arlen Specter has said this. He said it again yesterday. In vitro labs -- around this country today there are 100,000 frozen embryos. They can either be thrown in the trash -- which is going to happen -- or they can be used to save lives. Congressman, that's a no-brainer, isn't it? Why would you let them throw them away

FOLEY: I don't want them to throw them away. But again, I want to give us time and patience in this issue. I think people like Senator Connie Mack, my friend, and myself and Arlen Specter and Bill Frist and others are going to be working to convince the White House to continue to have a dialogue.

I believe the president's willing, once we get some more facts on the table to pursue this. But to sit here have this political harangue, and accuse the president of being short-sighted or maliciously misleading the public is wrong, and it is mean-spirited, and it's designed for 2002. When they show me their Ph.D.s from the Democratic National Committee, then I will listen to them a little bit more carefully.

JACKSON LEE: We have more time, we have more needs.

PRESS: That's going to have to be the last word. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-lee, thank you for coming into CROSSFIRE. Congressman Mark Foley, good to have you here. A spirited debate. I'm sure we'll revisit it again. bob and I will revisit it in our closing comments coming right up. Bob Novak and I will revisit it in our closing comments, coming right up.


PRESS: Bob, you know, there are two issues. One is how many stem cell lines. But the more important one, I think, is the credibility of the president. I mean, look. He said, you can have a tax cut without robbing from Social Security. Wrong. He said there's a big energy crisis this year. The lights are still on. Wrong. Now he says 64, and instead it's 25. When can you believe this guy?

NOVAK: I would like you Bush bashers for just one issue to look at it seriously without saying, "How we are going to make the president look bad?" I would like you to tell the truth. You know, with all due respect, Bill, you misrepresented the secretary of the Treasury last night, you said right in this closing comment that O'Neill -- Paul O'Neill said that a cut in the capital gains tax would drain revenue. And the Treasury admit that he never said any such thing.

PRESS: Although you said that every...

NOVAK: He never said any such thing.

PRESS: That was last night's debate, number one. You don't want to talk about stem cells because you can't defend George Bush.

NOVAK: I'd like -- I'd like...

PRESS: 25.

NOVAK: I'd like a little truth on your part.

PRESS: I would like you to defend the president, and I would like some truth on the president's part.

NOVAK: Like Demosthenes I'm searching for an honest man.

PRESS: From the left: stem cells. Good night from "CROSSFIRE." I'm Bill Press.

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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