WASHINGTON – A five-year, $15 billion program to fight AIDS won approval from a House committee Wednesday as lawmakers said the disease threatens the fabric of civilization.
The 37-8 vote by the International Relations Committee followed the rejection of an amendment by conservatives stating that abstinence should get priority over the use of condoms in preventing the spread of HIV-AIDS.
"The AIDS pandemic touches our national security, touches our civilization, touches our humanity," said the committee chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill. He has tried to meet the demands of his conservative allies, the committee's Democrats and the White House in writing the legislation.
The no votes came from GOP conservatives who wanted to strengthen language in the bill to ensure that religious groups would not be deprived of funds over matters of conscience.
Rep. Tom Lantos of California, the top Democrat on the committee, said the large sum of money approved was "no more than this crisis demands."
Hyde said 40 million people worldwide are infected with the virus, and 25 million have died of AIDS. He said 8,600 people a day die of complications from the disease.
The proposal grew out of an appeal by President Bush in his State of the Union address for $15 billion, including $10 billion in new money, to fight AIDS in Africa and elsewhere. The legislation would authorize $3 billion a year to fight AIDS as well as malaria and tuberculosis, and reserve up to $1 billion in the 2004 budget year for the Swiss-based, public-private Global Fund to Combat AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
The White House, while committed to the AIDS investment, has differed with Congress on the role of that fund, with some officials questioning its management practices.
"We're pleased that they're moving forward with this important priority," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. He said the administration will work closely with lawmakers to pass a bill "that is consistent with what the president proposed."
The administration has sought only $1 billion over five years for the fund. The House bill would impose new oversight over the fund, now headed by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
Conservative groups have expressed concern that the bill does not put enough emphasis on abstinence over condom distribution. The legislation cites the success of Uganda in reducing HIV infection through its "ABC" program encouraging abstinence, being faithful, and, as a third resort, condoms.
Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., offered an amendment stating that, while condoms could be a part of AIDS strategies, promoting abstinence and monogamy should have priority. "As we undertake a moral imperative, it's important we do it morally," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who supported the amendment.
But the committee, by a 24-20 vote, sided with a version offered by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., that does not give preference to any one preventive method. Supporters of this plan, including Republicans Jim Leach of Iowa and Amo Houghton of New York, argued that it was a mistake to focus on any one strategy when customs differ from country to country and village to village.
The committee approved an amendment by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., that recommends that 10 percent of the funds help orphans whose parents die from AIDS. He said there would be 20 million such orphans by 2005.
Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance, said he hoped the House bill could lead to action in the Senate, where Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., has been trying for a consensus.