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AIDS Legislation Making Progress in US Congress

Legislation to sharply increase U.S. funding to combat AIDS in Africa and countries in the Caribbean is making further progress in Congress. A House committee was due to approve Wednesday a White House-supported bill that would commit billions of dollars to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean.

In his State of the Union address last January, President Bush urged Congress to approve $15 billion in spending for AIDS over the next 10 years, $10 billion of which would be new spending.

The increase had been urged for years by House and Senate lawmakers, and particularly by Democrats and African-American members of Congress.

Wednesday, the House International Relations Committee marked up a bill to implement the president's goals. "We do so much in this Congress that is of tertiary importance, I don't want to say 'drivel,' but so unimportant," said Committee chairman Congressman Henry Hyde. "Resolutions 'pointing with pride' and 'viewing with alarm,' but not doing a great deal for humanity. Here is a chance to do something for humanity."

Although the AIDS bill was a product of bipartisan cooperation, it has also been subject to powerful interest groups from left and right of the political spectrum, trying to influence it.

The Bush administration favors conservative "faith-based" policies on questions of AIDS prevention and the role of condom use versus sexual abstinence.

The House bill contains language on condom use, but debate ensued over proposed wording that would have shifted emphasis to abstinence as the primary way to slow the spread of AIDS.

Efforts by the Ugandan government to fight AIDS, praised by U.S. government officials, became an issue of contention. Joseph Pitts, a Republican, said Uganda's ("ABC" or Abstain, Be Faithful, Use Condoms) approach, should be a model for countries in Africa and elsewhere, and proposed an amendment. "The amendment will ensure that these funds save more lives by moving taxpayer dollars away from failed schemes of the past, to life-saving strategies that have been proved to save lives," he said.

Barbara Lee, a Democrat, disagreed. She says the Uganda example showed condom use, and not abstinence, was the stronger factor in reducing AIDS infection rates. "The case study shows not the importance of abstinence-only programs, but the effectiveness of a multi-faceted approach to HIV prevention that includes condoms, that's the key in the Uganda success story," said Barbara Lee. "In fact, the abstinence component of the [Uganda] ABC program had really only moderate success and contributed only marginally to the decline of the disease.

Although controlled by majority Republicans, the committee voted 24 to 20 in favor of more moderate language proposed by Congresswoman Lee.

AIDS activist groups support the bills in the House and Senate, but say money flowing to the U.N. Global Fund on AIDS needs to be increased, and speeded up.

David Bryden, spokesman for the Global AIDS Alliance, says legislation has also been subject to too much politics. "The question is are we going to support people living with this disease, and those fighting this disease in Africa? That's the real question," he said. "This should not be about political footballs [issues] in the United States, or the controversies around sexuality in the United States. That's not really where our priority should be. It should how we can support the fight against AIDS in Africa, and other countries."

The House legislation would create a new post of "coordinator of U.S. government activities to combat AIDS," who will be appointed by the president and subject to Senate confirmation. Similar legislation is working its way through the Senate.

The AIDS bills are certain to be amended still further during debate in the full House and Senate, which must still vote on the separate measures and then resolve differences before a final bill goes to President Bush for signature.