- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

The Senate early yesterday approved spending $15 billion over the next five years to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean, making quick work of one of President Bush’s most high-profile promises.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, kept his colleagues in a marathon session, which began Thursday afternoon, to pass the bill in a voice vote with broad bipartisan support two weeks after it breezed through the House.

“Our actions demonstrate that we are a country that places a high value on life,” said Mr. Frist, a medical doctor who has treated AIDS patients. “History will judge how we choose to respond. We can proudly say that we made the right choice and took the necessary actions to put an end to one of the greatest destructions of human life in recorded history.”

AIDS has killed 20 million over the past 20 years and 40 million are currently infected with the disease, most of them in Africa and the Caribbean. The bill will fund AIDS prevention and treatment programs based on the “ABC” model successfully employed by Uganda — abstinence, being faithful and condoms.

The ABC program is credited with reducing the rate of HIV infections in Uganda from 21 percent to 6 percent since 1991.

“Congress has given the hope of life to millions of people in countries most afflicted by AIDS,” said Mr. Bush in a written statement. “This historic legislation will enable us to provide critical treatment and care for millions who suffer and greatly expand successful prevention programs to help those at risk.”

The only amendment to the Senate bill, promoting support for greater debt relief in AIDS-ravaged countries, is expected to be quickly approved by the House with the goal of getting a presidential signature on Tuesday, said a House Republican aide.

The bill’s passage was marked by an unusually low level of partisan wrangling as liberals and conservatives put their agendas aside to deal with the issue quickly and cleanly, said Rowland Foster, a staffer for the House Government Reform Committee who has worked on AIDS-related issues for several years. “We have to give all credit to the president. He’s the one who made this happen. He made lots of phone calls to members of Congress.”

Mr. Bush made spending $15 billion on the prevention and treatment of AIDS in the developing world a keystone of this year’s State of the Union address.

House conservatives succeeded in protecting faith-based groups from being denied AIDS money and mandating that one-third of the funds goes toward abstinence programs. Liberals beat back an effort to ban funds from abortion providers, but some are still displeased with the abstinence provision.

“Congressional Republican leaders have shown once again that they are more interested in pandering to anti-family-planning extremists than providing real solutions to a real crisis,” said Susanne Martinez, vice president for public policy at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

While the bill approves the spending of $15 billion, not a cent has yet been allocated. Each year, Congress is going to have to find $3 billion for the project in the appropriations process.

“This is not the final hurdle; now’s the time to show us the money,” said Mark Isaac, vice president for governmental and public affairs for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. “We still need to fully fund the legislation, and it’s critical that the Congress and the president move with the same dispatch to ensure the funding.”

Mr. Frist promised to ensure that happens.

Dr. Catherine Hankins, associate director of strategic information for UNAIDS, a United Nations-backed group, said the president will be able to showcase this commitment to fighting AIDS when he attends the G8 summit in France next month.

“Everyone wants to make sure that money is well used and is getting to where it needs to get there,” Dr. Hankins said. “I think the pressure has to be kept up, but the best way to keep up pressure is with measurable results.

“It’s a real leadership move,” she said.

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