House passes big hike in global AIDS funds
By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill to more than triple spending to fight AIDS in Africa and other parts of the world, one of President George W. Bush's foremost foreign aid quests.
The measure, a bipartisan compromise backed by the White House and passed by a vote of 308 to 116, calls for $50 billion in funding for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria programs over the next five years. It marks a big hike from the $15 billion authorized over the first five years of the initiative.
Bush had initially proposed doubling the program to $30 billion. The Democratic-led House boosted it to $50 billion.
A similar bill is heading toward passage in the Democratic-led Senate.
The initiative aims to prevent infection by the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, treat people already infected and care for children left as orphans by AIDS.
"There is a moral imperative to combat this epidemic," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.
The White House said the current program is supporting life-saving treatment for 1.45 million people.
The program launched by Bush in 2003 provides support programs and drugs in 15 countries, 12 in Africa plus Vietnam, Guyana and Haiti. The new bill would add 14 more countries in the Caribbean basin, and an amendment approved by the House would add three more African countries.
Bill opponents said it was simply too expensive, and that there were pressing needs at home that need to be addressed.
The bill would discard a current requirement criticized by some Democrats and AIDS activists that a third of all HIV prevention funds be spent on sexual abstinence education. It instead calls for "balanced funding" for abstinence, fidelity and condom programs.
There are 33 million people worldwide infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, with two-thirds of them in sub-Saharan Africa, according to U.N. estimates.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, said the bill would save millions of lives around the world and help maintain stability in a key region of the world.
"The program that we are authorizing today ... is now recognized as perhaps the most successful foreign assistance program of the United States of America since the Marshall Plan," Ros-Lehtinen said, referring to the costly U.S. plan to rebuild Europe after World War II.
Bush sees his efforts against AIDS and malaria as foreign policy successes in a presidency dominated by the unpopular war in Iraq. During a trip to Africa in February, Bush was given a hero's welcome in part for U.S. AIDS and malaria programs.
The White House calls the anti-AIDS initiative the largest commitment ever by any nation for an international health initiative dedicated to a single disease.
New Jersey Democratic Rep. Donald Payne said the initiative will go down as Bush's single most important achievement.
But opponents said it costs too much. "It is terrible that millions of Africans are suffering AIDS. But we cannot afford such totally irrational generosity. This is benevolence gone wild," said California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.
"We can't take care of our own veterans when they come home from the war. We can't take care of our elderly. We have people who can't take care of their own health needs and are at risk of losing their homes," Rohrabacher added. "We have big hearts. But we need to use our brains."
(Editing by Thomas Ferraro and Todd Eastham)