The Senate voted early yesterday to fund relief for millions of AIDS victims worldwide, moving swiftly so US President George W. Bush can go to next month's summit in France with powerful evidence of American intent to combat the deadly disease.
The five-year, US$15 billion measure targeted to AIDS victims in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean "allows us to go to the world," said Senate majority leader Bill Frist. "The US takes world leadership with this commitment."
Senators approved the measure by a voice vote with only one minor change in the legislation approved by the House two weeks ago.
The House is expected to approve the change early next week, sending it to the president, who asked Congress to get it to his desk before the June 1 to 3 G8 summit of world leaders in Evian, France.
Democrats tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to include provisions on food aid and debt relief for AIDS-hit countries, and to remove language in the House-passed bill guaranteeing money for abstinence programs.
Frist, surrounded by African ambassadors at a news conference, stressed both the political -- passing the bill before the Western nation summit -- and the moral in moving quickly. "Every day another 14,000 people are infected, and another 8,500 die. Time is of the essence," he said.
Bush, in his State of the Union address in January, urged Congress to pass the plan, which would nearly triple current US commitments to fighting a disease that has killed more than 30 million people in the last two decades.
"America must send a signal to the rest of the world that action by all countries is needed in the war against AIDS," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Mary M. Kanya, ambassador from Swaziland and chairwoman of the African HIV/AIDS Task Force, said the world was "standing on the threshold of the extinction of the African people" and thanked the US for "reaching out beyond its shores to lend a hand of help and hope."
She said 38.6 percent of adults in Swaziland were infected with the AIDS virus.
The package recommends that 55 percent of direct aid go to treatment programs, 20 percent to prevention, 15 percent to palliative care and 10 percent to children orphaned by the disease. It also would allow, but not require, the administration to contribute up to US$1 billion next year to the international Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
The actual spending of money authorized by the bill must still be approved by the appropriations committees responsible for annual budgets.
Appropriators said that Bush asked for only US$1.7 billion for global AIDS in his budget proposal for next year and that it will not be easy to find the rest of the money.