- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2000

White House and congressional negotiators yesterday agreed to provide a big down payment toward forgiving some $90 billion of the debts of the world's poorest countries.

Proponents of the debt relief say House and Senate budget negotiators agreed to provide the full $435 million requested by the Clinton administration to fund the United States' share of the debt relief. The money is included in a foreign aid bill pending in Congress.

The reported agreement is twice as much as the House originally budgeted for debt relief, and nearly six times more than the Senate appropriated. Proponents say momentum for the funding picked up noticeably in Congress after Texas Gov. George W. Bush strongly endorsed the idea of debt relief in a debate last week.

The Republican presidential nominee, who said debt relief is one of the best ways to provide aid to foreign countries, "got the Republican leadership's attention," said Thomas Hart, lobbyist for the Episcopal Church and a member of the ecumenical Jubilee 2000 movement that has been pushing for the debt relief.

The debt-relief measure is backed by a broad and eclectic group of religious, social and political figures, from the pope to the Rev. Pat Robertson. They argue that the forgiveness is needed to give poor countries in Africa and Latin America a fresh start at the beginning of the new millennium.

The debt relief measure has attracted a diverse following in Congress, from staunch conservatives like Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, to die-hard liberals like Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat.

"Having Governor Bush endorse this gives it all the political momentum it needs," said Mr. Hart.

The funding measure cleared one final obstacle yesterday when negotiators agreed to a demand by Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Gramm that countries receiving the debt relief disclose where the money is spent.

The Texas Republican wanted several other stringent conditions on the debt relief as well, in exchange for Congress providing authorization to the International Monetary Fund to use its gold reserves to pay for the IMF's share of the debt relief.

The IMF's debt-forgiveness program already requires nations that get the relief to use the money to finance better health care and education for their people. The IMF also requires as much as possible that countries adopt free-market economic policies.

Mr. Gramm wanted in addition to those conditions to bar any debt forgiveness for nations that violate human rights. He also said countries should be required to open their markets to American goods and phase out subsidies to government-run enterprises.

"If we do not do something like this, we are going to end up seeing this money spent on jet planes for government leaders," Mr. Gramm said in a Senate floor speech last Wednesday. "And 10 or 15 years from now these same countries will have the same debt crisis."

But debt relief proponents said Mr. Gramm's demands were so tough that few of the world's poorest countries would qualify for the relief.

They expect the compromise bill to pass both houses of Congress, with or without Mr. Gramm's vote.

Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers yesterday repeated his view that the debt relief should go only to countries that are "serious about undertaking economic reform." But he did not agree to any of Mr. Gramm's other conditions.

Mr. Summers warned that delay of the funding is jeopardizing efforts to provide debt relief in Latin America and Africa. Other countries have been waiting for action by the United States before they approve their portion of the aid.

Christi Harlan, a spokesman for Mr. Gramm, said he had not backed off any of his demands. But she conceded that he has little recourse but to vote against the bill if he is unhappy with the conference agreement.

"This is a fitting conclusion to the Jubilee Year 2000," said Mr. Hart. "In the midst of this season of intense politics and partisanship, all sides are coming together to help the poorest people on earth."

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