Group to Sift Reagan Ideas

Posted June 9, 2004 at 6:26pm

With the number of legislative proposals designed to honor the memory of President Ronald Reagan growing by the day, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on Wednesday appointed a task force that will vet each lawmaker’s suggestion before moving forward on any bill.

So far, lawmakers are suggesting that Reagan’s likeness should adorn several coins and bank notes. Frist himself has suggested that renaming the Pentagon “the Ronald Reagan National Defense Building” would be an appropriate commemoration.

“He appointed a working group basically to solicit ideas from Republicans and Democrats,” said Bob Stevenson, Frist’s spokesman.

Stevenson said the group — comprised of Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) — will report back to Frist by mid-July with recommendations on “what we can do legislatively to respectively honor the memory of Ronald Reagan, his life, his presidency and his tremendous contributions to the world.”

Frist named his task force as the nation continued to mourn the passing of the 40th president, whose body now lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda. It will be moved to the National Cathedral for a funeral service Friday before being returned to California for burial.

Another legislative suggestion designed to honor Reagan — and perhaps give a boost to a controversial bill to expand research on stem cells — does not have the support of the bill’s author.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he would oppose any effort to name his bill after Reagan, even though the late president’s wife, Nancy, championed the issue in a speech last month as a way to help prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease — the illness that Reagan endured for a decade or more.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a chief sponsor of the bill, said she thinks renaming the legislation after Reagan “would be a terrific idea” and had raised the suggestion with Hatch this week. The bill bans human cloning but allows for embryonic stem cell research.

But Hatch disagreed, saying that critics of the legislation — including many social conservatives who oppose abortion — might accuse supporters of the bill of trying to “take advantage of this very trying time of sadness.

“I caution that it may be misconstrued,” he said. “We ought to at least pass the bill first and name it afterwards.”

Hatch said it might even be more appropriate to name the bill for Nancy Reagan — an idea that the Utah Republican said he believes the late president would embrace.

“That would be my belief knowing him, and that would make him happy in the life hereafter,” Hatch said.

While the bill is largely supported by Democrats, the idea of expanding the use of stem cells for research is a controversial topic on Capitol Hill and has pitted some Republicans directly against President Bush’s stated policy.

Last week, Hatch and 57 of his Senate colleagues — 43 Democrats and 14 Republicans and Independent Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) — sent a letter to Bush asking him to increase scientists’ ability to engage in embryonic stem cell research. Reagan’s death on Saturday, coupled with the timing of the letter, has brought increased attention to the issue.

While Nancy Reagan and others believe that stem cells taken from embryos could help doctors research cures for this and other diseases, critics worry about the ethical consequences.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), an outspoken critic of using stem cells harvested from embryos, said that while he has “great respect for the Reagan family and for Nancy Reagan … you have to watch what we desire to do for science and what ethically is right to do. It is not just ethically right to create life to destroy it for research.”

Instead, Brownback supports the use of adult stem cells. He was scheduled to chair a subcommittee hearing Wednesday on this topic, but canceled it in the wake of Reagan’s death. He said he plans to reschedule it for the future.

Hatch, for his part, remained confident that he could convince more than 60 of his colleagues to vote for the bill, as long as Democrats do not politicize the issue or try and “embarrass President Bush during this election year.”

“I can assure you there are a few other Republicans [who will be willing to sign on] if it is not made into a partisan issue,” Hatch said.