Frequent foes unite for AIDS programs

Congressional coalition pushes for more spending

May 12, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - An unusual coalition of lawmakers is pressing President Bush to increase global spending on AIDS by hundreds of millions of dollars this year alone.

The Bush administration has budgeted $780 million for the global AIDS fight this year. On Thursday, however, Republicans in the House Appropriations Committee voted to add $200 million in global AIDS money to an emergency measure for homeland security and military spending. The White House had not asked for the money.

This week, the Senate Appropriations Committee is to vote on its version of the emergency spending bill and will consider adding as much as $700 million for global AIDS programs.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the coalition predict that the total will be $500 million when the House and Senate bills are reconciled, which would mean nearly $1.3 billion to fight the disease globally. The money is to be allocated by Sept. 30, with more likely next year.

The reasons for the shift are varied. Some lawmakers have come to embrace the disease as a children's issue, noting predictions that the number of AIDS orphans will increase to 40 million in the next decade.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the House minority leader, talks about a trip he took to Africa in 1999 as a crucial turning point.

Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat, led a delegation to South Africa, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, intending to learn about economic and political conditions. Instead, he said, he came away with a single message: "AIDS, AIDS, AIDS, AIDS. I came away knowing and believing that this is the moral issue of our time."

He has been joined by a senator from the other end of the political spectrum, Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican who has called foreign aid "a rathole" and asserted that homosexuals were to blame for the spread of AIDS. Yet as he prepares to retire, Helms is calling for $500 million for drugs that would keep expectant mothers infected with the human immunodeficiency virus from passing it on to their babies.

Gephardt wants the United States to spend even more, $2 billion a year, to fight AIDS.

Several years ago, both men might have been laughed out of official Washington for such suggestions. Not any more.

"It took tens of millions of people being infected and dying before our political system woke up to those realities," said economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, who served as chairman of a World Health Organization panel that examined the economic impact of AIDS. "But there is no doubt it is waking up now."

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