Politics & Government

DeMint loses bid to limit AIDS program

WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly defeated Sen. Jim DeMint's bid to cut the $48 billion cost of expanding President Bush's global AIDS initiative to dozens of countries beyond Africa.

DeMint's amendment to a five-year reauthorization of Bush's signature program lowered the price tag to $35 billion and removed funding for new efforts to fight malaria and tuberculosis.

"What we're doing here this week I consider obscene -- completely unacceptable," DeMint said in an angry Senate floor address before the vote. "We're talking about creating the largest foreign aid program in the history of our country, with no thought."

The Senate's 64-31 vote against the DeMint measure indicated strong bipartisan support for Bush's heralded 2003 campaign targeting AIDS in Africa, which supporters say has saved 2 million lives.

Two hours after defeating DeMint's amendment, the Senate voted 80-16 to pass the AIDS bill. Its total cost is $50 billion, with senators voting earlier in the day to divert $2 billion to domestic benefits for Native Americans.

Democrats showered rare praise on Bush for launching the global AIDS effort five years ago.

"President Bush has probably transformed this effort into the single most important piece of his legacy," said Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and his party's 2004 White House nominee.

"I have been extremely critical of President Bush's foreign policy," said Sen. Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"But I must say that the president of the United States has led us to this incredible moment," Biden said. "This is the single largest effort on the part of any country in the history of the world to go out and literally save and extend the lives of tens of millions of people."

Biden thanked the late Sen. Jesse Helms, who died earlier this month, noting his "conversion" from an ardent foe of government AIDS programs to a strong supporter, thanks in part to his friendship with the singer and social activist Bono.

Advocates of combating AIDS around the world hailed Senate passage of the legislation.

"This is a landmark achievement," said David Bryden, communications director of the Global Aids Alliance, a Washington-based group. "It is a historic strengthening of U.S. leadership on global health."

Twenty-nine of DeMint's fellow Republican senators backed his cost-cutting amendment, but 18 opposed it.

"It would be a severe blow to United States prestige and leadership on this issue," said Sen. Richard Lugar, senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We have the opportunity to save lives on a massive scale."

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Richard Burr of North Carolina voted for DeMint's measure. Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina voted against it.

DeMint and Graham voted against the overall AIDS bill, while Burr and Dole supported it.

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, their parties' presumptive presidential nominees, were on the campaign trail and didn't vote on the measure or several proposed amendments.

In his State of the Union address this year, Bush asked Congress to double spending on the AIDS program to $30 billion.

Over the next five months, lawmakers added $20 billion to Bush's reauthorization bill, with most of the new spending aimed at treating malaria and tuberculosis.

The measure also directs funding beyond treatment for the deadly diseases to training doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals, buying equipment and other new uses.

DeMint scolded his peers for spending so much money at a time of "economic crisis," with rising gas prices, failing banks and a soaring government deficit.

"This isn't our generosity," DeMint said. "None of us are going to give a penny to help Africa or any other nation. We're going to borrow this money and take it from our children and grandchildren -- and walk out of here (feeling) proud of ourselves. We should be ashamed of ourselves."

The Senate on Tuesday defeated two other amendments from DeMint.

One of the amendments sought to limit recipients of the AIDS funds to he 15 poor African nations already getting aid. With its defeat, dozens more nations in Asia, Europe and elsewhere will get money.

The second DeMint amendment targeted China's alleged "coercive abortion and forced sterilization," barring aid to any countries that engage in such practices.

A broad range of religious, health and charitable leaders backed the AIDS legislation, from Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa to Franklin Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham and head of the Samaritan's Purse, an international relief group based in Boone, N.C.

"When the United States embarks on this kind of global health effort with tangible results in countries around the world, we demonstrate our values and our caring," said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.