WASHINGTON – The Senate (search) voted early Friday to fund relief for millions of AIDS (search) victims worldwide, moving swiftly so President Bush (search) can go to next month's summit in France with powerful evidence of American intent to combat the deadly disease.
The five-year, $15 billion measure targeted to AIDS victims in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean "allows us to go to the world," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn. "The United States takes world leadership with this commitment."
Senators approved the measure by a voice vote with only one minor change in the legislation approved by the House two weeks ago.
The House is expected to approve the change early next week, sending it to the president, who asked Congress to get it to his desk before the June 1-3 Group of Eight summit of world leaders in Evian, France.
"He wants money from the G-8," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind. "He wants commitment."
Democrats tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to include provisions on food aid and debt relief for AIDS-hit countries, and to remove language in the House-passed bill guaranteeing money for abstinence programs.
The only amendment accepted, by Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., urges an increase in funding for debt relief for poor countries suffering from HIV/AIDS. House GOP leaders had agreed to the change, Republicans said.
But Republicans and Democrats were in rare concord on the general goals of the bill, in contrast to the partisanship characterizing debate on a GOP tax cut bill that preceded the AIDS vote. "This bill offers the beginning of real hope," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
Frist, surrounded by African ambassadors at a news conference, stressed both the political -- passing the bill before the Western nation summit -- and the moral in moving quickly. "Every day another 14,000 people are infected, and another 8,500 die. Time is of the essence."
Bush, in his State of the Union address in January, urged Congress to pass the plan, which would nearly triple current U.S. commitments to fighting a disease that has killed more than 30 million people in the last two decades. Congress has responded with unusual speed and bipartisanship considering the unprecedented scope of the program.
Lawmakers tend to be frugal when it comes to doling out foreign aid, said Rep. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., "but this is a challenge to the world."
"America must send a signal to the rest of the world that action by all countries is needed in the war against AIDS," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in urging quick passage by the Senate.
Mary M. Kanya, ambassador from Swaziland and chairwoman of the African HIV/AIDS Task Force, said the world was "standing on the threshold of the extinction of the African people" and thanked the United States for "reaching out beyond its shores to lend a hand of help and hope." She said 38.6 percent of adults in her country were infected with the AIDS virus.
The House passed the bill 375-41, but only after conservatives made some changes to meet their concerns about abstinence and condom programs.
The bill states that one-third of all funding for prevention programs go to promoting abstinence, and that no religious or other group be deprived of funding because it objects to distributing condoms.
The package recommends that 55 percent of direct aid go to treatment programs, 20 percent to prevention, 15 percent to palliative care and 10 percent to children orphaned by the disease. It also would allow, but not require, the administration to contribute up to $1 billion in 2004 to the international Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Much of the debate on abstinence and condom use centered on the experiences of Uganda, which has had success in reducing infection with its "ABC" program: "A" for abstinence, "B" for being faithful and "C" for using condoms when appropriate. Many Democrats, while acknowledging the importance of abstinence, stressed that all available means must be used to prevent AIDS.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., tried without success to remove the one-third guarantee for abstinence programs, while Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was defeated in his attempt to require that programs seek the lowest possible price for products of assured quality when purchasing anti-retroviral drugs.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., proposed allotting $500 million to the Swiss-based Global Fund in 2004, with an additional $500 million available depending on two-one matches by other countries. "They are desperate. They have projects all over the world that need funding immediately," he said of the two-year old international fund. The amendment lost, 52-48.
The actual spending of money authorized by the bill must still be approved by the Appropriations committees responsible for annual budgets. Appropriators said that Bush asked for only $1.7 billion for global AIDS in his 2004 budget proposal and that it will not be easy to find the rest of the money.