House Approves $17.1 Billion Foreign Aid Bill

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The House on Thursday approved a $17.1 billion foreign aid bill including two new initiatives by President Bush to fight AIDS (search) in Africa and poverty around the world. Democratic critics said the AIDS money was short of what was promised and needed.

The legislation passed, 370-50, after the House rejected an attempt to add Saudi Arabia to five other nations - all on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism - that are ineligible for U.S. aid.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., argued that, like Cuba, Syria, Libya, North Korea and Iran, Saudi Arabia has funded terrorists and fostered hatred of the West. But the State Department warned that his amendment, while affecting only $105,000 in military training aid, would severely undermine counter-terrorism cooperation with Saudi Arabia. It was defeated, 231-191.

The spending bill includes $1.43 billion for HIV/AIDS, the first installment of a five-year $15 billion plan to combat the AIDS pandemic in Africa and the Caribbean. It also has $800 million for the Millennium Challenge Account, a plan to target assistance to those countries striving to carry out economic and political reform.

Bush championed both in his State of the Union (search) address in January.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chair of the Appropriations Committee foreign operations panel, said the initiatives were "the most innovative programs we have seen in decades" responding to the problems of persistent poverty and AIDS.

An additional $644 million for global AIDS program in another spending bill for the budget year starting on Oct. 1 brings total spending to more than $2 billion, some $500 more than this budget year. Democrats pressed hard, but with no success, to move that figure closer to the $3 billion a year allowed under the $15 billion program, reminding Republicans that Bush had hailed the $15 billion program during his recent trip to Africa.

"Africa is now at the epicenter of the greatest catastrophe in recorded human history," said Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., noting that Africa accounts for 18 million of the 25 million around the world who have died from AIDS.

Kolbe argued that $2 billion was sufficient to get the program off the ground and that both the White House and Congress were committed to meeting the $15 billion goal. The president asked for $2 billion in his budget request.

The House cut $500 million from the $1.3 billion White House request for the Millennium Challenge Account (search) - again because the new program wasn't ready for full funding. The White House warned that further cuts would subject the bill to a presidential veto.

Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick, D-Mich., proposed moving $300 million from that program to AIDS relief, arguing that few African countries could qualify for the Millennium program. Her amendment was defeated, 228-192.

The bill was $1.8 billion under the president's request for foreign assistance in 2004, reflecting the budget restraints Congress is under this year. The current year budget is $16.2 billion.

It includes nearly $2.7 billion in military and economic aid for Israel, $1.9 billion for Egypt and $456 million for Jordan.

There's no money included for reconstruction in Iraq, and lawmakers agreed that the administration will have to come back with an emergency spending bill for Iraq.

The bill meets the president's request for $731 million for the Andean Counterdrug Initiative (search), $576 million for the states of the former Soviet Union and $962 million for the World Bank Group.

The administration said it was disappointed that the House bill failed to provide $300 million in debt relief for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It also expressed concern that the $314 million for the Peace Corps (search), $45 million below the request, would make it difficult to meet its goal of doubling the number of volunteers to 14,000 by 2007.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a $18.1 billion foreign aid bill, including $1 billion for the Millennium Challenge Account, but the full Senate has yet to take up the legislation.