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Senate Cuts Boost in Global AIDS Relief
Published on Saturday, June 8, 2002 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Senate Cuts Boost in Global AIDS Relief
White House Persuades GOP to Await New Plan
by Marc Sandalow
 

WASHINGTON -- The Senate abruptly scaled back plans to boost global AIDS relief this year after the White House urged key Republicans to withdraw their support.

The unanticipated development came just as Congress appeared on the verge of spending historic amounts to fight the deadly pandemic, which has infected 4.5 million children and kills 5,000 people each day in Africa alone.


In no way do I believe that there is a deal or agreement I can accept. This was a real jolt. As we address the challenges of 9/11, we must not forget there are other challenges that affect the lives of millions of people.

US Rep. Barbara Lee
D-Oakland
Hours before a vote Thursday on a $500 million AIDS proposal, White House budget director Mitch Daniels persuaded the measure's author, Republican Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, to reduce it by 60 percent.

White House aides said President Bush would make his own announcement over the next few weeks to establish his commitment to the issue, but supporters of AIDS relief expressed doubts it would approach the level abandoned by the Senate Republicans.

"Do we have any faith that the White House will make up for it? No," said Paul Zeitz, executive director of Global AIDS Alliance.

Bush has proposed steady increases in AIDS funds, but his requests have not kept pace with the appetite of many lawmakers, including those from his own party. Support for fighting the disease reached critical mass this year on Capitol Hill, where, after years of more modest allocations, an unusual alliance of Republicans and Democrats made dramatic spending increases appear likely.

More than 36 million people in the world today have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and 95 percent of those live in developing countries, according to a United Nations report. AIDS already has surpassed the plague, which ravaged medieval Europe, as the world's No. 1 killer.

SOME RECENT UNLIKELY ALLIES

Jolted particularly by the number of mother-to-child transmissions in Africa, longtime opponents of AIDS relief have joined the crusade. One former opponent, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, noted that at age 81, he is "mindful of soon meeting" his maker and confessed recently that he was "ashamed that I had not done more."

Helms and Frist, a close ally of Bush, joined forces to propose a half- billion-dollar addition to the emergency terror bill now before Congress to supplement the $750 million already being spent on international AIDS this year.

But Thursday afternoon, after several conversations with Daniels, Frist stunned his colleagues by announcing that he no longer supported his own $500 million proposal and planned to scale it back to $200 million.

Democratic efforts to push the measure without the support of Frist and Helms, who is recuperating in the hospital from heart surgery but went along with his Republican colleague, failed by a 49-46 vote. Eight Democrats joined 41 Republicans voting against it.

"It's a bait and switch," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who like many of her colleagues assumed the Senate would approve at least $500 million in relief and perhaps as much as $700 million.

Had she known that Frist, the only physician in the Senate, and Helms would pull their support at the 11th hour, "I would have organized my colleagues. I would have done something," Boxer said.

The $200 million in AIDS spending approved by the Senate was part of a $31. 5 billion emergency bill directed mostly at providing money as soon as possible to combat terrorism. The Republicans' decision came amid a veto threat by Bush, who said the price tag on the terror bill was too steep. The spending bill isn't confined to terrorism measures, however, and includes $2 million to store animal specimens at the Smithsonian and $2.5 million to map the Hawaiian coral reef.

Aides to Frist and Helms said they agreed to drop their support of the more costly AIDS measure only after being assured by the White House that Bush would unveil a "comparable" plan to combat international AIDS, perhaps as early as next week.

"We're going to end up at the same place by taking another route," said Frist spokeswoman Margaret Camp.

"We feel very good about it. It's vastly better to have the president's support," said Helms' spokesman, Lester Munson.

$100 MILLION IN ADDITIONAL FUNDS

Several sources on Capitol Hill and among AIDS activists said the Bush plan would include $100 million a year in additional AIDS funds for each of five years starting in 2004, which would fall far short of the Helms-Frist plan.

White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said Helms and Frist are "working closely with the president" on the White House proposal, but he did not divulge any details or dollar amounts.

The change drew charges of betrayal from advocates who said they have no reason to believe the White House will follow through on its commitment.

"In no way do I believe that there is a deal or agreement I can accept," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, one of Washington's most vocal advocates for increased spending to fight AIDS. "This was a real jolt. As we address the challenges of 9/11, we must not forget there are other challenges that affect the lives of millions of people."

Boxer said, "We had an opportunity to be a real world leader on this, and we blew it."

©2002 San Francisco Chronicle

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