August 9, 2001 WASHINGTON (AP)--President Bush told confidants it was as grave a decision as sending American troops into war. Quietly, he begged advice from scientists, ethicists, patients, politicians and priests. The president ultimately settled the question - should the government fund potentially lifesaving cell research that involves killing human embryos? - in his own mind.

Then he impatiently roused senior adviser Karen Hughes from her family vacation on Wednesday to help with the words to explain his decision. In an unused house on the president's sprawling Texas ranch, Bush, Hughes and Jay Lefkowitz, the top lawyer at the agency where regulations on federal funding get written, huddled for 21/2 hours Wednesday afternoon trying to get the paperwork just right - the speech, the talking points, the regulations. After a break for exercise and dinner, the president practiced aloud the speech that Hughes had written for him and he braced for the political fallout that would inevitably begin 24 hours hence.

Some senior aides were surprised by the timing, having been told to expect an announcement next week. But Bush, who is on a monthlong working vacation in rural Texas, grew tired of reporters asking about his decision whenever he ventured out to golf or visit with local residents, aides said.

For months, he had been hit by advice from all sides. Pope John Paul II warned Bush in Rome against the ``evils'' of creating human embryos for research. First lady Laura Bush weighed in with a private opinion that she declined to make public. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., used a ride aboard Air Force One to lobby Bush for the research. Vice President Dick Cheney, who was not part of Bush's inner circle on this issue, found himself being lobbied while fly-fishing in Montana with a buddy on the board of the Alliance for Aging Research. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission [and Beliefnet columnist], told White House political strategist Karl Rove that Bush stood to lose support of 16 million anti-abortion Southern Baptists counting on him to keep his campaign promise opposing embryonic research.

Thursday's televised announcement capped a long deliberation so tightly guarded that White House aides have operated under the assumption that to speak publicly about any part of the process would be a fireable offense. Two of the few who were in on the president's plan, chief of staff Andrew Card and communications strategist Dan Bartlett, happened to pull into the White House driveway at the same moment Thursday - around 6:20 a.m. - to get an early start on their highly sensitive to-do lists. Card telephoned Cheney at home in Wyoming to let him know the decision was made. On Nantucket island, vacationing press secretary Ari Fleischer alerted TV networks. At Bethany Beach, Del., congressional liaison Nicholas Calio dialed lawmakers with nothing more than a promise to fill in the details after Bush said his piece to the nation.

Rove, known around the West Wing as ``the stem cell guy'' for his stewardship of Bush's decision-making process, fielded calls on his Texas vacation but told anxious senators and conservatives he was sworn to secrecy. Bush presided in recent weeks over small, Oval Office discussions with Catholic church leaders, Dr. John Mendelsohn of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, conservative bioethicists Leon Kass of the University of Chicago and Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center, and representatives of the anti-cell-research National Right To Life Committee and the pro-research Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

Only Hughes, Card and Rove sat in on these sessions, described as exhaustive and deeply probing of the moral, scientific and political crosscurrents of stem cell research. At Bush's instruction, these meetings were typically his last of the day so that they could run long. Last Thursday was the final day that Bush brought in experts, hearing from NIH scientists in the morning and a pro-research ethicist late in the afternoon. As Bush put it last month: ``My process has been, frankly, unusually deliberative for my administration. I'm taking my time.''

Radio call-in host Janet Parshall participated in a meeting Bush held recently to discuss his social-services agenda with Christian broadcasters. He unexpectedly raised the stem-cell issue. The president was ``anguished'' and made clear that he had ``consulted a higher authority,'' Parshall told CNN on Thursday.
Bush did not speak to University of Wisconsin researcher Jamie Thomson, who discovered human embryonic stem cells in 1998. And, despite assumptions in the research community, Bush did not consult with the Senate's only physician, Republican Bill Frist or Tennessee, who had pushed a middle ground proposal for letting the research go forward under more stringent restrictions.

The president mentioned the issue only in passing on two occasions when Frist was at the White House on other business, spokeswoman Margaret Camp said. At a private meeting of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, Rove was asked about the president's deliberation by Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., whose mother's battle against Alzheimer's has made him a passionate advocate of stem cell research. Ramstad later shared Rove's reply: ``The president equates the enormity, gravity and magnitude of this decision to an issue of war and peace and whether to commit American troops.''

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