WASHINGTON – President Bush said Saturday he's eager to sign legislation that triples money to fight AIDS and other diseases around the world — an initiative that has won him praise from some of his harshest critics.
In a rare case of cooperation between the White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress, lawmakers voted this week to significantly increase U.S. assistance to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis around the world. It gave renewed life to a program credited with saving and prolonging millions of lives in Africa alone.
The 303-115 vote in the House on Thursday sent the five-year, $48 billion plan to the president.
"I thank members of Congress from both sides of the aisle for working with my administration to pass this important bill, and I will be honored to sign it into law next week," Bush said in his weekly radio address.
Bush first floated the idea of a campaign against the scourge of AIDS in his 2003 State of the Union speech.
The current $15 billion act, which expires at the end of September, has helped bring lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs to some 1.7 million people and supported care for nearly 7 million.
The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR, has won plaudits from some of the president's critics both in Congress and around the world. While some GOP conservatives questioned the sharp spending increase, others said the U.S. aid had important security as well as moral implications and gave a needed boost to America's reputation abroad.
PEPFAR has focused on nations in sub-Saharan Africa that have been devastated by AIDS, but it has also provided assistance in the Caribbean and other areas hit by the pandemic now affecting some 33 million worldwide. Even with advances in treating the disease, there are still about 7,000 new HIV infections everyday around the world.
The final product took months of compromise: Democrats took out a provision in the existing act requiring that one-third of prevention funds be spent on abstinence education but allowed for reports to Congress if abstinence and fidelity spending falls below certain levels. Conservatives won "conscience clause" assurances that religious groups would not be forced to participate in programs to which they morally object.
Bush, who originally proposed doubling the program to $30 billion, first opposed but later accepted the $50 billion bill that initially passed the House in April. The Senate diverted $2 billion of the $50 billion to Indian programs and inserted a provision that more than half of funds for AIDS programs go for treatment and care.
The Senate also attached a measure, welcomed by AIDS advocacy groups, that ends a two-decade-old U.S. policy that has made it nearly impossible for HIV-positive people to get visas to this country as immigrants, students or tourists.