The Senate is on a collision course with President Bush and the House after voting overwhelmingly to raise annual spending for international AIDS relief to $2.4 billion, roughly $400 million more than the administration had sought for the initiative to help nations in Africa and elsewhere ravaged by the disease.
The Senate, which already had bipartisan agreement to spend more than $2.1 billion, voted 89 to 1 late Thursday to approve an additional $289 million to combat AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria this fiscal year.
The issue now heads to a House-Senate conference committee. Lawmakers will decide how much to spend on AIDS relief through two bills funding foreign operations and health programs.
Funding for international AIDS programs has drawn new attention this year after Bush called for a $15-billion, five-year crusade against the disease in his State of the Union address in January.
A law passed in May to implement Bush's landmark initiative authorized up to $3 billion in AIDS funding for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. But the president sought only $2 billion for the year, arguing that additional funds would not be spent efficiently at the program's outset. The House agreed with Bush. In mid-October, the administration repeated its opposition to any funding beyond $2 billion.
But pressure has grown in the Senate to spend more. The amendment passed Thursday was sponsored by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and backed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), both of whom have traveled to Africa recently and seen firsthand the destruction caused by the disease.
"We need to move forward now," DeWine said after his amendment was approved. "This is an emergency in the truest sense of the word. We cannot be timid. We cannot be afraid. We must be bold and start taking some chances right away."
The amendment, attached to an $18-billion foreign operations bill, passed after sponsors found unspent money in a defense account, meaning the additional AIDS funding would not add to the federal budget deficit. The foreign operations bill also passed Thursday on a voice vote.
The lone dissenter to DeWine's amendment was Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).
Rock star Bono, an advocate of AIDS relief, praised the Senate action. "More money to fight the AIDS emergency is critical, not just to save millions of lives in Africa but to keep the momentum going," Bono said. "Sen. DeWine is the bodyguard of the world's poor today and deserves real praise."
The Senate defeated, on a largely party-line vote, a Democratic amendment to raise international AIDS relief to $3 billion for fiscal 2004.