WASHINGTON — President Bush's efforts to broaden a widely respected, bipartisan program to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa have faced roadblocks by seven Republican senators.
Bush had hoped that Congress would pass legislation to spend $50 billion to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis primarily in Africa in time for the Group of Eight summit in Japan next month. However, the seven socially conservative senators, led by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., refuse to support the legislation unless spending focuses more heavily on treatment than on prevention.
In a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the seven senators — Coburn, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, 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, the expansion of AIDS funding to countries such as China and India and the 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 were pushing for a compromise. Reid has been reluctant to move the legislation forward until an agreement is struck, and this week Democratic leaders focused blame for the delay on the seven senators.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, supports expanding the program, and the White House has pressed lawmakers for 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. "And I think that members of Congress recognize that, as well. I think we're just working on these details. There have been some concerns, but I think that we're able to address them."
The bills are backed by a wide range of humanitarian groups. Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently pressed McConnell to convince the Republican senators who've 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 G-8 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 G-8, is crucial to regaining momentum."
While several of the seven senators have pushed for a stronger focus on abstinence, a survey conducted by the State Department's Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator found that more than half the international health experts surveyed expressed concern over legislative language that includes a "directive for abstinence and faithfulness programs."
The Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, and the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine recently released recommendations that urged allowing countries increased flexibility on how best to treat and prevent the spread of the disease.
The president's program to fight the spread of the disease in Africa has been lauded on both sides of the aisle and is seen as a crowning foreign-policy achievement for an administration that's weathered an 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, the 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've blocked the legislation, Bryden said.