WASHINGTON -- Defection from anti-cloning ranks by Sen. Jim Talent, until now a rising star in the conservative movement, reflects deep divisions in the Republican Party created by the stem cell research issue.
When Talent went on the Senate floor Friday to take his name off a bill to ban human cloning, he showed how those divisions imperil his re-election to a second term in Missouri this year. Talent had been a longtime co-sponsor of Sen. Sam Brownback's anti-cloning bill. But Missouri business interests who finance the Republican Party are backing a state constitutional amendment that explicitly allows human cloning to enable scientific experiments on embryonic stem cells.
Talent succumbed to pressure to step away from Brownback, basing this on the premise that there are new scientific developments. His risk is that his social conservative constituency will regard this as a betrayal and in turn abandon Talent at the polls. Missouri has been a passionate battleground, beginning with the Civil War and more recently as a weathervane for national elections.
The stem cell struggle there reflects nationwide tension between the country club and religious conservatives that has been kept under control in the largely dormant abortion debate. But Democrats want to use stem cell research as a wedge issue in the way Republicans used gay marriage. Talent had a political choice between the country club and his old right-wing constituency, and he picked the country club. This column may have inadvertently hurried Talent's choice.
David Freddoso, my reporter, learned early last week that Talent was "considering" getting off the bill co-sponsored by Brownback and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu. Talent's staff was unresponsive to our questions, talking vaguely about "changing science." When I tried to talk to the senator starting last Wednesday, he did not call me back until after his 30-minute Senate speech Friday abandoning the Brownback-Landrieu bill.
Talent was under political duress.
State Auditor Claire McCaskill, his formidable Democratic opponent for the Senate, on Jan. 24 opened fire on Talent for wanting to "criminalize" attempted research for "life-saving cures." With Talent a narrow loser for governor in 2000 and narrow winner for senator in 2002, current polls show him about even against McCaskill. Talent was not ready to respond Feb. 4 when he addressed a Missouri Republican conference in Kansas City and did not mention stem cells.
In his Senate speech Friday, Talent reaffirmed opposition to human cloning and relied heavily on Dr. Bill Hurlbut's experiment attempting to produce stem cells without creating a human embryo. Talent conceded to me that Brownback-Landrieu did not necessarily rule out Hurlbut's approach but added that the bill could impede "a whole new world" of procedures. When I told Brownback Wednesday that Talent might get off his bill, that was the first he had heard of it. Republican State Rep. Jim Lembke, leading the campaign against the cloning constitutional amendment, has been unable to speak with Talent since the middle of last year. Talent thus gave the impression he is switching sides.
"If you mess with your base in a close race," Lembke told this column, "that probably is going to have negative consequences." But Talent still is refusing to take a stand on the cloning amendment, which is supported not only by Democrat McCaskill but also big-time Missouri Republicans: former Sen. John Danforth, Gov. Matt Blunt and Bush fund-raiser Sam Fox (who has personally contributed more than $1 million to Republicans). Republican sources say the billion-dollar endowed Stowers Institute in Kansas City, headed by Republican contributors, has threatened to move to Los Angeles if the constitutional amendment is not passed. Such a proposal is the law in California, enabling patent holders for certain research techniques and products to profit heavily.
Talent told me he could not take a position on the amendment because it is not on the ballot, is tied up in court and is not in its final form. In fact, it is sure to be on the ballot, faces no serious legal impediment and clearly permits human cloning in scientific research. Jim Talent, having stationed himself in the middle of the road on a passion-provoking issue, risks being run over.