Dealing a blow to President Bush a week before the Group of Eight economic summit in Scotland, the House voted to slash money from the assistance program considered a cornerstone of his campaign to spread democracy around the world.
Money for the program, the Millennium Challenge Account, is included in the $20.3 billion foreign aid bill the House approved on a 393-32 vote Tuesday.
Overall, the bill for next year is roughly 11 percent less than the president proposed but nearly 4 percent more than this year's funding. The Senate has yet to write its version of the bill, which provides health, education, counter-narcotics and military assistance to poor nations.
House lawmakers chose to pad several of the president's other proposals with the $1.25 billion they cut from his request for the Millennium Challenge Account, a program that gives countries extra money if they pursue political, economic and human rights reforms.
Among the winners: a fund to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. It's slated to get $2.7 billion, about a half-billion dollars more than this year and $131 million above the president's request.
Bush had asked for $3 billion for the third year of the Millennium Challenge Account, double the current funding level. The House bill would provide only $1.75 billion.
Congress has provided $2.5 billion for the program over the last two years — $1.3 billion less than Bush requested. The corporation overseeing the program has spent only about $4 million of that, says the Congressional Research Service, which writes reports for lawmakers.
House lawmakers emphasized they were providing record funding for the program — roughly $262 million more than Congress provided for the current year — and noted that the corporation hasn't spent most of the money it already has.
The corporation projects using up all its money by early next year.
The Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's foreign operations panel, Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona, said he made the program "a priority" despite budget constraints.
His Democratic counterpart, Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, criticized the administration for asking for a large increase in the program "on the backs of our core development accounts."
The president proposed the program in March 2002 as a way to encourage global development by helping countries enact democratic principles. But it has been slow to get off the ground.
Under the program, countries agree to complete certain tasks to get the money. The corporation has approved agreements with only four countries — Madagascar, Honduras, Cape Verde, Nicaragua. That's fewer than anticipated.
The measure would also lift restrictions on military aid to Indonesia, despite lingering human rights concerns. The Bush administration wants to resume full ties with Indonesia's military, which it considers an important ally in fighting terrorism in the world's most populous Muslim nation.
Before taking up the overall bill, the House also approved provisions that would:
_Prevent the Export-Import Bank from approving federal loan applications for corporations that want to construct nuclear power plants in China. The vote was 313-114.
_Bar money in the bill from going to foreign countries that refuse to extradite any individuals who are accused in the United States of killing law enforcement officers. The vote was 327-98.
_Restrict $25,000 in the bill for Saudi Arabia, a largely symbolic measure lawmakers say is meant to send a message that the ally needs to cooperate more with the United States in the war on terror. The vote was 293-132.
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