WASHINGTON – While President Bush was telling Africans they can count on the United States in their struggle against AIDS (search), the House moved Thursday to approve only two-thirds of the money available in 2004 for a global HIV-AIDS prevention and treatment act Bush signed in May.
Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chairman of the House subcommittee in charge of foreign aid, said the AIDS money was up considerably from this year and he was confident that Congress would live up to its promise to spend $15 billion over the next five years to fight AIDS abroad. But he said that spending $3 billion in the first year was unrealistic when the program was just getting off the ground.
Kolbe's House Appropriations foreign operations panel on Thursday approved $1.43 billion to fight AIDS and other infectious diseases for the 2004 budget year starting Oct. 1. Another spending bill on the House floor Thursday would add $644 million, bringing the total to just over $2 billion, up about $500 million from this year. The White House itself had only asked for $2 billion.
Bush, in a speech Thursday in Botswana, a country devastated by AIDS, pledged that the United States would be a partner in the battle against a disease that has already killed more than 17 million in sub-Saharan Africa.
"This is the deadliest enemy Africa has ever faced, and you will not face this enemy alone," he said.
But Democrats and AIDS activists said U.S. credibility would be damaged if Congress didn't allot the full $3 billion allowed under the new law.
It's a "moral disgrace" to underfund AIDS programs when there's "nothing less than a holocaust taking place on the African continent," said Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill.
Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance (search), said the full $3 billion could easily be programmed immediately. "We're holding the president and the Congress accountable to the promises they made to the people dying from AIDS," he said.
Kolbe acknowledged that Bush "continues to compound the problem" by talking in Africa about a $15 billion assistance program as if the spending had been finalized, when in reality Congress must approve each year's funds.
Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, top Democrat on the subcommittee, said that when the full committee takes up the foreign aid bill next week she will try to add $1 billion in emergency spending for AIDS programs.
Kolbe said that the $3 billion for 2004 allowed under the new law was a ceiling, and that it would be a mistake to overspend in the first year when a new global AIDS coordinator just nominated by Bush is not yet in place and procedures for programs are still being drawn up.
The Senate, during debate on a State Department bill Thursdsay, approved by 78-18 a non-binding amendment offered by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., supporting the full $3 billion for 2004. The Senate, said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, needs to "send a clear message to the people of Botswana who are listening today and who want to believe that ... the commitment given earlier this year is one that will not erode."
The proposed 2004 AIDS budget earmarks up to $500 million - compared with $200 million sought by the White House - for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (search), an international group backed by the United States. The rest of the money would go directly to specific programs or countries.
The United States, which so far has contributed 46 percent of the Global Fund resources, is trying to encourage other countries to increase their AIDS funding. The new law limits U.S. contributions to the fund to one-third of the total.
The 2004 foreign aid bill totals $17.1 billion, up from $16.2 billion this budget year but still under the president's request of $18.9 billion.
It includes $800 million for the Millennium Challenge Account, another Bush initiative aimed at helping African and other developing countries that carry out certain political and economic reforms. Bush asked for $1.3 billion, but, again, Kolbe said the program hadn't advanced to a point where it could use that amount.
The aid bill sets aside $2.6 billion in military and economic aid for Israel, $1.9 billion for Egypt, $600 million for Afghanistan, $456 million for Jordan and $576 million for the states of the former Soviet Union. There's no money for Iraq, but Kolbe said he expects the administration to come back later this year for Iraq aid because it appears that revenues from Iraqi oil will be below estimates.