House Acts On Foreign AIDS Help, Debt Relief

House Acts On Foreign AIDS Help, Debt Relief

 

Washington Post Friday, July 14, 2000

 

By Juliet Eilperin

 

The House voted yesterday to increase U.S. funding for international debt relief and AIDS funding for poor countries, in an unexpected reversal of the GOP leadership's effort to cut two of the Clinton administration's top foreign initiatives.

 

The votes came during consideration of a $13.3 billion foreign spending bill and provided the clearest signal yet that Congress is committed to providing more resources to Africa in light of its current health and economic crises. Many lawmakers said they acted after alarming reports this week from an international conference in Durban, South Africa, about the spread of AIDS.

 

"Members of Congress are beginning to feel the outrage of this pandemic," said Rep. Barbara T. Lee (D-Calif.), who successfully offered an amendment adding $42 million in international HIV/AIDS funding to the bill.

 

Conservative Republicans joined with moderates and a majority of Democrats in approving the extra AIDS money in the bill, which now fulfills President Clinton's original budget request of $244 million for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. That's an increase over the $190 million in the budget this year.

 

GOP leaders had originally proposed forgiving $69 million in loans made to impoverished countries, but the House voted to triple that amount to roughly $225 million, or more than twice the current budget. The extra money for both AIDS and debt relief was largely taken from funds for foreign military aid and training.

 

The total funding still remains less than Clinton had proposed as part of a major initiative to relieve the crippling foreign debts burdening many Third World countries, and Clinton officials pledged a veto of the foreign aid bill. The Senate has yet to act on its version of the bill.

 

Still, the votes were a striking turnaround for many House Republicans, many of whom have been outspoken in their criticism of the wisdom and efficacy of foreign assistance. Religious groups have created a coalition called Jubilee 2000 that is lobbying to forgive Third World debt at the outset of the new millennium, and several conservative lawmakers said they felt morally compelled to aid poor countries.

 

Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), who chairs the House Banking and Financial Services subcommittee on domestic and international

monetary policy, delivered an impassioned plea Wednesday night, arguing that America could afford to pay what amounted to

$1.20 per citizen each year to erase the world's debt.

 

"Never in our history has one country had so much progress, wealth and luxury," Bachus said. "Now, with the start of the new millennium, we can do so much for a billion of the poorest citizens of the world."

 

The House narrowly approved the debt relief measure on a vote of 216 to 211, with 26 Republicans joining 189 Democrats and 1 independent. Lawmakers then easily approved the increased AIDS funding, 267 to 156. The overall bill was approved on a 239 to 185 vote.

 

Clinton administration officials had lobbied vigorously for extra money for debt relief, warning that House Republicans were preventing the United States from fulfilling an agreement last year by the world's richest countries to write off $50 billion in Third World debt.

 

The debate on both debt and AIDS sparked emotional remarks on the House floor. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt

(D-Mo.), who traveled to Africa in December, thundered that the AIDS crisis there is "the moral imperative of our time" and

exchanged hugs with his colleagues after his speech.

 

Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) said he has been talking to some of his religious conservative colleagues about devising policy

solutions on the matter.

 

"We have a moral responsibility to address the AIDS epidemic in Africa," Largent said. "It's reached such proportions, it's just out

of control."

 

Senate proponents of a bill establishing a $100 million World Bank trust fund for AIDS research said yesterday they are now optimistic they can reach a compromise with the House, which has already passed legislation providing money for the initiative.

 

While congressional negotiators must still work out an agreement with the White House on funding for foreign aid, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said yesterday's vote strengthened the administration's bargaining position. "We sent him a strong message he needs to demand debt relief," Waters said.

 

House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach (R-Iowa), another advocate of debt forgiveness, said the combination of Africa's AIDS problem and its bleak economic outlook compelled lawmakers to act. "Debt relief, coupled with certain things we're doing for AIDS, represents the single greatest initiative by the United States to the developing world," he said.

 

2000 The Washington Post Company