With protesters in the audience chanting, ringing cowbells and waving red umbrellas, the AIDS 2012 session couldn’t be called completely congenial.
But there was plenty of comity on the dais, as former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and four members of Congress Wednesday praised each others parties’ efforts in fighting AIDS and urged their colleagues to put down their political differences – even in an election year – and keep AIDS a legislative priority.
Fighting AIDS has long been a bipartisan issue,said Dr. Frist, a former Republican senator from Tennessee.
Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat, recalled that when the Congressional Black Caucus went to meet with newly inaugurated President George W. Bush, “HIV and AIDS was at the top of our agenda.”
“President Bush got it, right away,” she said, and soon House leaders, including Republican Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois and Democrat Reps. Tom Lantos of California and Donald Payne of New Jersey, were pushing forward a bill that would become the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
Dr. Frist, who championed PEPFAR in the Senate with fellow Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana and Democrat Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, recalled the initial difficulties in lifting the 1980s travel ban on HIV-positive people to the United States.
But eventually, Congress incorporated the end of the ban into its new PEPFAR law, Mr. Bush signed it and President Obama officially lifted the ban when he took office.
Mr. Bush’s announcement in 2003 about putting $15 billion into fighting AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in other countries came as “a shock” to both Republicans and Democrats, said Sen. Mike Enzi, Wyoming Republican.
But PEPFAR “passed both House and Senate unanimously, unamended, in two months. That never happens,” said Mr. Enzi, who has traveled to Africa at least seven times to stay abreast with anti-AIDS efforts.
Despite Congress being in one of the “rockiest” stretches of partisanship in a long time, fighting AIDS is an issue of “refreshing bipartisanship,” said Sen. Chris Coons, Delaware Democrat, who in the 1980s visited several African countries and witnessed the disease “roaring” through villages.
“There are so many other areas where we need bipartisanship. I am just grateful that this has been one” where U.S. leadership, at home and abroad, has been sustained in a bipartisan way, and it should continue, said Mr. Coons, who recommended the United States “double down” on investments for AIDS.
The goal is to “innovate and cure our way out of this. That, I think, is in keeping with the optimism and the entrepreneurship of the American character,” added Mr. Coons.
The nation should not lose its sense of emergency about HIV/AIDS, said Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican. “The closer we get to the finish line is not the time to ease up.”
The hour-long session at the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., was punctuated by protesters with red umbrellas and signs calling to an end to the “criminalization” of sex workers, drug addicts and other marginalized groups with AIDS.
“Sex workers’ rights are human rights,” they chanted. “Rubio Make Mitt End AIDS,” said one sign.
Dr. Frist managed their protests, sometimes allowing them to demonstrate and then kindly but firmly insisting they quiet down so the hundreds of people in the audience could hear the lawmakers. “I’m used to this, [after] being majority leader,” Dr. Frist added wryly.