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US House of Representatives Considers Foreign Assistance Bill

The House of Representatives is considering a $34-billion measure for U.S. international assistance programs and other foreign affairs priorities. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

Known as the foreign operations bill, the measure contains money for a range of global priorities, from AIDS treatment and prevention, and assistance to Darfur to peacekeeping and democracy-building.

Likely to be approved on Thursday, it provides just over $5 billion for the president's HIV/AIDS prevention treatment and care program, along with $550 million for the Global Fund for grants to help prevent AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and hundreds of millions for child survival and health.

More than $6 billion goes for efforts to strengthen the worldwide public health infrastructure, $750 million for grants to organizations supporting basic education programs and $300 million for safe water programs.

The measure also continues the strong commitment of Congress to assisting refugees and displaced people in Sudan's violence-torn Darfur region.

Lawmakers provide about $950 million for Sudan, including $210 million for humanitarian and peacekeeping in Darfur, $100 million above the figure requested by President Bush, with other funds aimed at economic development and democracy-building in Southern Sudan.

In providing $1.3 billion for United Nations peacekeeping missions, the measure funds U.S. contributions for operations in Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Haiti, East Timor, the Middle East and Kosovo.

Among the priorities is $100 million for what is called critical support of the African Union force in Darfur.

Among specific aid programs, House lawmakers are giving the government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe just over $530 million, a reduction of $86 million and $59 million below President Bush's request.

Democrat Jim McGovern says this is part of a reordering of priorities for U.S. assistance placing more emphasis on economic development and administration of justice, along with drug interdiction and security aid.

"The 2008 bill re-balances our priorities in Colombia," said Jim McGovern. "It recognizes that the response to violence, narco-trafficking and instability in our South American neighbor must be multi-faceted, helping to guarantee lasting security through good governance.

In other bilateral assistance, lawmakers withhold $200 million in foreign military financing for Egypt, until the Secretary of State certifies the Egyptian government is moving to address human rights concerns through judicial reforms, and training of police, and addresses concerns about the smuggling of weapons from Egypt to Gaza.

In a disappointment for President Bush, lawmakers make a significant cut in the Millennium Challenge Corporation which helps countries showing progress in political and economic reforms.

The legislation, which must also be approved by the Senate, also contains money for U.S. government-funded international broadcasting, including Voice of America.

In providing about $32 million more than 2007 levels for broadcasting, and $14 million above the president's original request, lawmakers provide funding to roll back proposed cuts to specific language programs.

VOA English, which has been slated for elimination, is described as making an essential contribution to U.S. public diplomacy, and especially important since it provides accurate, objective and comprehensive news to a potential English-speaking audience of 1.6 billion people worldwide.

Lawmakers also recommend full restoration for VOA broadcasts in Albanian, Bosnian, Croatian, Greek, Macedonian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Uzbek, Hindi, Cantonese, Thai and Tibetan.

Similar recommendations are made regarding proposed cuts in Tibetan and Cantonese at Radio Free Asia, along with five European language services of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The legislation also funds increased broadcasting to North Korea in accordance with the North Korea Human Rights Act approved by Congress in 2004.

Lawmakers are withholding funds to enhance the U.S. funded Al-hurra Arabic language television for the Middle East, in the wake of controversy over programming it aired, including anti-American and anti-Israel statements by Hezbollah and Hamas leaders.

That controversy led to the recent resignation of the station's top official in charge of news, and Congress is awaiting reports from the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the State Department Inspector General on management and other changes.

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