Bunning balks at Bush's bill to fight AIDS

WASHINGTON — President Bush's efforts to broaden a widely respected, bipartisan program to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa has faced continued roadblocks by Kentucky's Jim Bunning and six other Republican senators.

Bush had hoped Congress would pass legislation to spend $50 billion to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis primarily in Africa in time for the G8 Summit in Japan next month. However, Bunning and the six other socially conservative senators led by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., refuse to support the legislation unless spending is focused more heavily toward treatment rather than prevention.

The president's program to fight AIDS ”has been one of our most successful foreign assistance programs,“ Bunning said. ”I fully support President Bush in his efforts to address the issue of HIV and AIDS. I have always supported this program, but I am concerned by some of the substantial changes made to it in the bills passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to reauthorize the program. These bills make significant policy changes to the program that I believe could jeopardize its success.“

In a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the seven senators — Bunning, Coburn, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and David Vitter of Louisiana — criticized the bills' increased spending over the next five years from $15 billion to $50 billion, expansion of AIDS funding to countries such as China and India, and inclusion of funding for agricultural assistance and poverty alleviation programs.

”The bills' support would allow morally questionable activities, including advocating with host governments to change gender norms and policies and promoting activities that could include needle distribution to drug users,“ the senators wrote.

McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., support the legislation and said they are pushing for a compromise. However, Reid has been reluctant to move the legislation until an agreement is struck. This week Democratic leaders blamed the seven senators for the delay.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, supports the program's expansion, and the White House has also pressed lawmakers on the legislation's passage.

”President Bush himself talks to members of Congress about it to make sure that they know how important he thinks it is that they pass this bill because of all the good work that it's doing,“ White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Wednesday.

The bills are also being backed by a wide range of humanitarian groups; Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently pressed McConnell to persuade Bunning and the other GOP senators who have balked to pass the legislation.

”With the quick passage of this legislation, the United States could send a strong signal of its continuing global health leadership that will leverage support from other G8 nations,“ Tutu wrote in a letter to McConnell. ”That is why I am so deeply troubled by the impasse in the U.S. Senate regarding this legislation. I see signs that global determination to keep the promises made on AIDS, TB and malaria is waning, and I know that passage of this legislation, prior to the G8, is crucial to regaining momentum.“

Although several of the seven senators have pushed for a stronger abstinence focus, a survey conducted by the State Department's Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator found that more than half of the international health experts surveyed expressed concern over legislative language that includes a ”directive for abstinence and faithfulness programs.“

The Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative arm, and the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine recently released recommendations that urged allowing countries increased flexibility in treatment and prevention.

The president's program to fight the spread of the disease in Africa has widely been lauded on both sides of the aisle and is seen as a crowning foreign-policy achievement for an administration that has weathered international backlash for the Iraq war.

”The AIDS program has been the best ambassador the U.S. has ever had. It's exactly why the president was welcomed when he went to Africa earlier this year. It has strengthened U.S. diplomacy,“ said David Bryden, communications director for the Global AIDS Alliance, an international advocacy group.

Several hundred AIDS activists will march on the Senate on Thursday and deliver funeral wreaths to lawmakers who have blocked the legislation's passage, Bryden said.