- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Now that President Bush has returned from his African trip, where he discussed the U.S. commitment to increase spending to combat HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, the focus turns to some unfinished business: The president’s plan needs to be adequately funded, and it’s our job in Congress to make that happen.

The Senate followed the House to pass historic legislation authorizing a $15 billion/five-year AIDS-relief plan for Africa and the Caribbean, more than doubling U.S. spending. Now, for the president to fulfill his promises of hope and partnership to the African nations ravaged by HIV/AIDS, the White House and Congress need to work together to navigate the budget appropriations process and show that our commitment is not just on paper.

The immediate challenge is to fully fund the commitment we made in the U.S. Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act passed last month — $2 billion a year in bilateral aid, and up to $1 billion in multilateral aid to match other countries’ assistance. Mr. Bush’s budget request — made before Congress passed its bill — was approximately $2 billion for the coming fiscal year, and I am concerned that Congress is on a course to appropriate less than we authorized. How do we explain this disconnect?

We can’t. Our humanitarian mandate is clear, and our commitment should be as well. More than half of the world’s HIV/AIDS-infected population lives within the borders of just 14 African and Caribbean nations. These countries bear the incredibly disproportionate burden of grief and social deterioration that the widespread illness brings.

At the same time, the economic impact from a diseased workforce on the welfare of children, families and U.S.-based multinational employers in Africa cannot be overemphasized. The average life expectancy of sub-Saharan Africans is only 47 years of age. Virus-weakened immune systems make contagious diseases like tuberculosis and malaria difficult to ward off or control. More than 11 million children are orphaned because of HIV/AIDS, and this number continues to grow.

The president’s request for fiscal year 2004 is slightly less than $2 billion, including monies for: an Emergency Response Plan to be administered through the State Department for use by organizations already on the ground and working in Africa; a Mother-to-Child Transmission Prevention Program; the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Child Survival Assistance for Bilateral Programs; HIV/AIDS programs administered through the Department of Health and Human Services; and a commitment to the Global Fund.

His request was historic; however, we in Congress must live up to our commitment. By appropriating a full $2 billion for bilateral prevention, orphan and treatment initiatives and $200 million initially for the Global Fund, with a commitment to match additional funds from the international community, the Bush administration can achieve its goals of preventing 7 million new HIV/AIDS infections, caring for 10 million infected persons and AIDS orphans, and treating 2 million infected individuals with antiretroviral drugs.

Both houses of Congress have responded with incredible speed and bipartisanship in authorizing a global AIDS program of unprecedented scope. Now, we have to ensure the funds are there to deliver. Time is of the essence: Every day, another 14,000 people are infected with HIV and another 8,500 die of AIDS.

I hope Congress will agree that meeting this responsibility is the right thing to do because it has the potential to save millions of lives. We cannot afford to let this historic opportunity pass us by.

Rick Santorum is a senator from Pennsylvania and chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

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