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US House Panel Advances HIV-AIDS Prevention Program


A key congressional committee has approved and passed on for consideration by the House of Representatives legislation to dramatically increase U.S. funding to help prevent and treat HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis around the world. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush urged Congress to authorize $30 billion for PEPFAR, an acronym for the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, over the next five years after current legislation expires.

However, Democrats in Congress wanted to go significantly farther, reflected in the minimum $50-billion figure contained in the reauthorizing measure.

Acting after the president's trip to several countries in Africa, where he was praised by leaders for his AIDS program, the House foreign affairs panel moved the measure forward for consideration by the full House.

Lawmakers pointed to concrete results from the original program approved in 2003, but said more needs to be done.

Congressman Chris Smith is a New Jersey Republican:

"I think you need resources commensurate with the task and this will help to end hopefully end certainly for many individuals, will present this horrific tragedy from coming to their doorstep," said Congressman Smith.

Also from New Jersey, Democrat Donald Payne:

"Even though we have made praiseworthy progress, it is still not enough in my opinion," he said. "Only 28 percent of Africans needing anti-retro viral drugs are receiving them. Shockingly, over 85 percent of African children who need [these drugs] are going without them. A mere 11 percent of HIV-positive women who need drugs to prevent mother to child transmission of HIV during child birth are getting them."

The legislation was the subject of negotiations on a compromise finalized only this week between Democrats, Republicans and the White House.

It eliminated a controversial provision requiring that a certain amount of funds be spent on programs emphasizing abstinence, part of the so-called ABC or "Abstinence/Be Faithful/Use Condoms" approach.

Republicans and the White House raised objections over this, and other language they saw as favoring abortion.

Changes direct that U.S. funds promote what is called a balanced program of prevention, and requires a report if programs emphasizing the ABC approach do not receive half of funds aimed at preventing sexual transmission of HIV.

California Democrat Barbara Lee:

"We had to give on a few issues, just as our colleagues on the other side of the aisle had to give on a few issues, but what is important is that this is a compromise and that is what this is about," she said.

Republican Ileana Ros Lehtinen says the compromise preserves key principles in the original legislation:

PEPFAR funds can be, and in fact are, used to support HIV/AIDS prevention, voluntary testing and counseling and treatment programs at clinics which provide other services such as family planning," said Lehtinen. "This is in keeping with the current practice. However, the agreement before us helps ensure that HIV/AIDS funding is not used to support family planning programs.

Not everyone was happy, with some Republicans asserting they did not have enough time to thoroughly review the legislation and others objecting on cost grounds.

California's Dana Rohrabacher was joined by fellow Republican Dan Burton who expressed concern that African and other countries would not be able to efficiently absorb the funding increase.

ROHRABACHER: "We are going to spend $50 billion. We can't take care of our own veterans. We have people we can't take care of their health needs, and we're going to approve spending $50 billion [for] Africa?"

BURTON: "The agencies involved, and the people involved in Africa, have not been able to absorb the $15 billion that was authorized before. I mean, they haven't even been able to use that and now we're authorizing $50 billion and my big question is can they absorb it?"

White House reaction came from President Bush's press secretary Dana Perino.

"We appreciate the effort to draft in a thoughtful, bipartisan way; we appreciate that we were able to work with them," said Dana Perino. "It retains the important policy principles that have made the program such a success and we applaud the committee's work in quickly moving this bill forward and we hope that the House and Senate will soon follow suit and send it on to the President for signature."

At the same time, the White House says the president believes that the lower $30-billion figure he proposed in his State of the Union address, would be more likely to be used effectively by countries in the program.

The existing HIV/AIDS program focused on 12 African nations, along with Haiti and Guyana in the western hemisphere and Vietnam in Asia.

The legislation approved by the House panel Wednesday also retains language requiring organizations receiving U.S. funds to oppose prostitution and sex trafficking.

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