WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s announcement Friday that he would support federal funding of embryonic stem cell research sparked outrage among Christian conservatives and may signal a rift within the Republican Party in advance of the 2008 elections.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Frist, a heart-lung transplant surgeon from Tennessee, said the restrictions on federal funding imposed by President Bush in 2001 “will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases.”

Frist’s break with the president elicited profuse thanks from such stalwarts of the left as Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., as well as gratitude from Republicans on the right, ranging from former First Lady Nancy Reagan to Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Orrin Hatch of Utah. Bush, notified by Frist of his decision late Thursday, said, “You’ve got to vote your conscience,” according to White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

But Frist’s decision may complicate his presidential ambitions as well as expose the limits of the clout of social conservatives considered pivotal in the Republican presidential primary process.

“Senator Frist’s public backing of this horrific science is being felt deeply across Middle America, and most importantly at the grassroots,” said Tamara Scott, Iowa state director for Concerned Women of America. “Iowans today are significantly saddened to see our majority leader support an issue that stands in opposition to his former pro-life stance.”

Marshall Wittmann, former legislative director for the Christian Coalition, said Frist’s break with social conservatives may be a sign that GOP lawmakers are feeling the heat from swing voters for intervening in the Terri Schiavo case this year.

After voting to instruct the courts to review whether Schiavo’s feeding tubes should be reinserted, Congress found itself sinking in the polls as voters expressed unhappiness and shock that lawmakers would try to step into a private family dispute.

“It may be a signal that the religious right can take nothing for granted as they look to 2008,” said Wittmann, now a political analyst at the Democratic Leadership Council. “His apostasy may presage a real fight within the Republican Party in 2008.”

On Capitol Hill, Frist’s announcement changes the political calculus for stem cell legislation, which has passed the House and has been pending in the Senate with a myriad of other related bills.

Specter, one of stem cell research’s early backers, said Frist had given political cover to undecided lawmakers and provided new momentum to the issue.

“Here’s a man who really knows science and who really knows government,” said Specter. “So it is a very, very profound change. It’s an earthquake.”

Aides to Frist and others who are close to him say the senator spent several months reviewing information and talking with scientists, ethicists and religious figures, including at Harvard, Stanford, Vanderbilt and other universities.

They said Frist studied the current policy, as well as the state of the science now. One fact may have moved him the most: Existing stem cell lines have been contaminated and can’t be applied for human medical use.

Whether he factored politics into his decision isn’t known. But aides said Frist made the decision based on science.

“Of course there are those on the right who are going to scream,” said one person close to Frist, dismissing the uproar.

In any event, the senator was unlikely to become the top choice of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, said John Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who studies the GOP.

“There were many doubts about his effectiveness in dealing with judicial nominations,” said Pitney.

And while the right may have agreed with his position on Schiavo, Pitney said, “he wound up getting bad publicity out of it because a lot of people viewed him as trying to do a diagnosis on the basis of videotape.”

There was little question, however, where socially conservative Christian groups stood on Frist and stem cells after his speech Friday morning.

“Across the board there is profound disappointment,” said Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition. “I think it would be extremely difficult for the conservative, evangelical community and the pro-life community to say they would endorse Senator Frist should he run for president in 2008. I think it’s a really strong breach here.”

At Focus on the Family, spokeswoman Carrie Gordon Earll called Frist’s decision “more than disappointing” and complained that he was making scientifically inaccurate statements using a selective analysis of current research.

But Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said it was too soon to tell what the political ramifications might be for Frist or social conservatives.

“I don’t think there’s any bigger message being sent by this decision at all,” said Perkins. “I think this is the decision of one man, albeit an important man.”

In the Senate, opponents of embryonic stem cell research shook off the loss Friday.

“I don’t think it matters,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who also is a doctor. “The president is going to veto it anyway.”

And despite talk by stem cell advocates that they will try to change the president’s mind, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said he’s not worried that they will succeed.

“I’m quite confident,” said Brownback, a favorite among social conservatives who is also mulling a run for the White House. “The president staked out clear principles that this is human life and I don’t think he’ll move from it.”

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