14 May 2008

Africa: U.S. Senators Block Key HIV/Aids Legislation

Washington, DC — A group of United States senators is blocking a bill that would help HIV/Aids patients in Africa and around the world, and could postpone the bill's passage until next year.

The bill reauthorizes and expands on previous legislation to fight HIV/Aids, under which the program known as the President's Emergency for Aids Relief (Pepfar) was established. The new bill, which authorizes $50 million in spending over the next five years, passed the House of Representatives on April 2 by a vote of 308-116. In order to become law, it must now pass the Senate and be signed by President Bush.

However, seven Republican senators object to the removal of a requirement that a minimum of 55 percent of spending should be directed to the treatment of HIV/Aids patients. The seven have signed a hold letter, which will postpone a vote on the bill indefinitely.

The formal title of the bill is the Tom Lantos and Henry J. Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Reauthorization Act of 2008. It is named for two prominent U.S. congressmen, Lantos a Democrat and Hyde a Republican, who died recently.

Senator Richard Burr (Republican-North Carolina), one of the seven senators blocking the legislation, told a press briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington DC Tuesday: "The focus is not on delivering medicine, it is not on treatment, it is not on addressing the population of individuals with HIV/Aids in Pepfar countries… It is focused on what was politically accommodating. There are no hard targets."

"What we know is treatment is prevention," added Senator Tom Coburn (Republican-Oklahoma), another senator blocking the bill.

The move has several critics, including John Bradshaw, director of the Washington office of Physicians for Human Rights, who said in a statement to AllAfrica that the Pepfar program must be "flexible and respond to what is needed in each country - and people on the ground are in the best position to make those decisions, not senators in Washington dictating artificial, numerical targets."

The senators blocking the bill even have critics within the Republican Party. Michael Gerson, a former member of the Bush administration who played a key role in the first Pepfar bill, wrote in an op-ed published today in the Washington Post that the actions of the seven Republican senators are "destructive."

"The 55 percent treatment floor would force the program to waste money in pursuit of an arbitrary, nonsensical spending target – the worst kind of congressional earmark," Gerson wrote. He accused the senators of insisting on a minimum figure for treatment as a means of discouraging what they saw as "feckless or morally dubious" spending which might promote abortion or the purchase of needles for drug addicts.

The supporters of the seven senators claim that the delay is necessary for millions of people with HIV/Aids. Michael Weinstein, the president of Aids Healthcare Foundation, the organization that put together the Capitol Hill press briefing, said "the removal of the language that requires Pepfar to direct a specific amount of its funds toward lifesaving Aids care and treatment will cost millions of lives."

Coburn added: "We are deadly serious about making sure [Pepfar] stays an effective program."

Gerson, however, accused Coburn of "undermining the bill." He reported that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Democrat-Nevada), who schedules floor time in the Senate, supports the bill but will not introduce it if it leads to a long, drawn-out quarrel. Gerson added that President George W. Bush is not making the bill his top legislative priority.

"Given these obstacles, supporters of Pepfar reauthorization now estimate a 50 percent chance it will shelved until next year," Gerson wrote.

Coburn seemed to agree with this prediction, telling reporters that the bill was still in an early stage of Senate processes.

Katie Wyly contributed to this report.

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