Bush AIDS Policy Conversion Surprises Many

While President Bush scored points this week for his proposal to spend $15 billion to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean, many lawmakers and policy analysts reacted with surprise and even skepticism about the president's recent conversion and commitment to the cause.

"I would stress that the sooner we can use the money the president has pledged, the sooner that we will be able to fight this horrendous pandemic," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. "I am concerned, though, that this money will be taken out of some other account. We cannot afford to rob Peter to pay Paul."

Lee, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus' Task Force on HIV/AIDS, is just one who expressed disappointment that only $1 billion of the proposed money is going into the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a fund that was set up by legislation Lee authored.

Others said they were startled by the president's decision to triple U.S. spending and increase the speed and distance in which anti-retroviral drugs are delivered.

"He talked about fighting AIDS in Africa, but pulled the rug out from under [Senate Majority Leader] Bill Frist and me last fall when we had the chance to make America the world's leader in fighting that pandemic," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said Wednesday in response to the president's State of the Union address.

Frist, R-Tenn., and Kerry introduced an AIDS assistance package last year that, combined with a bill authored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., would have committed $5 billion to combat the global AIDS problem. Bush didn't sign it.

But now that Frist is Senate leader, and a highly-regarded ally of Bush on Capitol Hill, some analysts suspect he could have had something to do with the president's conversion.

Frist, a doctor who travels on a medical mission to Africa every year, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., discussed the AIDS initiative at a White House dinner last week with Bush and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

"I think the fact that [Frist] discusses this issue with Bush has had an impact," said Juan Williams, senior national correspondent for National Public Radio and a Fox News contributor.

But Williams said he spoke with Frist immediately after the State of the Union and the senator told him he was surprised by the extent of Bush's commitment.

The Foreign Relations Committee has now scheduled next Wednesday for consideration of a bill introduced by Frist, Kerry and Lugar and others to increase U.S. funding for the global AIDS fight. Frist said if the committee approves the bill next week, he will schedule full Senate action before the end of February.

Williams said he too was caught off guard by the grandeur of the Bush proposal and thinks it likely was motivated by an increasingly loud call from the evangelical community for an aggressive AIDS policy.

That "caught the president's eye," Williams surmised.

Other voices that have captured the president's ear have come from within his own administration.

Dr. Joe O'Neill, the openly gay director of National AIDS Policy handpicked by Bush last July, "has got a lot of influence — let me put it to you this way — because of his convictions," Bush said Friday when he detailed his plan.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson co-chair the President's Cabinet Task Force on HIV/AIDS. Thompson was also appointed Friday by the president to head the Global Fund to Fight AIDS.

"It's been clear to us for some time that Secretary Powell has been most interested in international AIDS issues ... but one cannot underestimate the influence of the president and the president's interest in this issue," said Human Rights Campaign spokesman David Smith.

"It doesn't really matter [whose influence it was] — the bottom line is, the president made these policy statements," Smith said.

"Clearly he is saying to the African leaders, 'We are serious about Africa.' There's no other way to show them he cares about Africa," Williams said.

To others, however, Bush's commitment to assist 14 nations, including Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Nigeria, may go beyond a mere humanitarian calling.

Williams said the argument could be made that a strong AIDS initiative may be in the United States' best bet to prevent extremist groups from gaining a foothold in a nation in desperate conditions.

"In a way, this could be a good move by the United States to prevent Africa from ever becoming a terrorist breeding ground," Williams said.

But J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Centers for Strategic and International Studies, questioned that explanation.

"I think it's a pitch towards Africans and a pitch toward Americans. It's trying to create an image and a reality that the administration is working actively on issues other than war at this time," he said.