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 Washington Notebook

January 28, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 4

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"When it comes to finding friends on Capitol Hill you have to take what you can and try to move things forward."

David Bryden
of the Global AIDS Alliance


On Capitol Hill, No Permanent Enemies

By Joe Feuerherd

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President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address is most remembered for the infamous "16 words" he uttered: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." That claim, of course, turned out to be false (as the now famous former ambassador, Joseph Wilson, reported to the administration.)

Others, however, remember the speech not for what was said about African uranium, but for what the president said about the disease that ravages the continent.

"I ask the Congress to commit $15 billion over the next five years, including nearly $10 billion in new money, to turn the tide against AIDS in the most afflicted nations of Africa and the Caribbean," said Bush.

It was a call to arms. With those 36 words, Bush proposed real money to fight an identifiable and immediate threat. The chorus of praise for this commitment was nearly universal.

A year later, and none of the money spent, some have concluded that the president's pledge is as ephemeral as the uranium sought by Iraq. And the fact that the White House, State Department, and the Department of Health and Human Services spent much of 2003 lobbying congressional appropriators to reduce African AIDS funding did not endear the administration to those who took the president at his word.

That's where the strange bedfellows came in.

A coalition that included the U.S. bishops (led by Pensacola-Tallahassee Bishop John Ricard, chairman of the bishops' International Policy Committee), evangelical and mainline Protestant denominations, rock star Bono, Bread for the World, and anti-AIDS activists from the Washington-based Global Aids Alliance worked the outside; at key moments these forces mobilized support and pressured Congress.

The proposal had a tortuous legislative path involving multiple appropriations and authorizing committees, as well as House-Senate conference committees. Ricard wrote letters, visited with members of Congress and their staff, and got some of his fellow bishops to call key home-state legislators. Bread for the World generated mail to wavering representatives.

Bono, founder of the activist group DATA (Debt, Aids, Trade - Africa), was a half-hour late for a press conference called to publicize the effort, though he had a good excuse. The sunglass-wearing rocker was detained in the Oval Office, where he pushed the president to fully fund his own initiative.

On the inside, meaning the halls of the Senate, an equally odd coalition was taking shape. Key to its success: two-term Republican Senator Rick Santorum.

Outside his home state of Pennsylvania, Santorum is best known for comments made prior to the Supreme Court decision overturning Texas' anti-sodomy statute. "…if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home," Santorum told the Associated Press, "then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything."

Santorum's statement follows him everywhere. Like last week at Georgetown University.

Santorum was the keynote speaker at the Knights of Columbus sponsored "Cardinal O'Connor Conference on Life." Outside the conference hall, some Georgetown students circulated flyers noting Santorum's April 2003 comments. The flyer castigated Santorum for his conservative views on the death penalty, welfare policy and immigration. "This man cares about life?" asked the flyer.

Inside the hall, a Georgetown student identified herself as a lesbian and challenged Santorum. He gave little ground, arguing that the right to "privacy" recognized by the Supreme Court can logically be expanded by precedent-following courts to include the host of practices he discussed with the Associated Press.

With that history, and his firmly held conservative views, the 45-year-old father of seven was among the least likely of candidates to champion the anti-AIDS funding. But Santorum played against type.

At key moments -- along with his conservative Senate colleague Mike DeWine (R-OH) and liberal Richard Durbin (D-IL) -- Santorum, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, moved the process forward. In the face of three letters from Bush urging lesser amounts, this most loyal of administration lieutenants bucked the administration and fought for more funds.

The omnibus appropriations bill finally approved last week provides $2.4 billion for the Africa AIDS initiative, $500 million of which goes to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS. Not the $3 billion sought by the religious leaders, Bono, and anti-AIDS activists, but 16 percent more than that requested by the administration. And enough to make a solid down payment on the president's $15 billion five-year commitment.

So what's Santorum's motive? Is he trying to mitigate the fallout from his bigamy, incest and polygamy comments? Perhaps, though he's on record prior to April 2003 favoring expanded anti-AIDS efforts in Africa.

Will his position on the AIDS African legislation give a veneer of moderation to the hard line Catholic who faces the Pennsylvania electorate in 2006? Possibly. But one supposes that he could have found an issue closer to home to make that point.

Or maybe, just maybe, Santorum's doing the right thing for the right reason.

"I think he genuinely cares," says David Bryden of the Global AIDS Alliance. "And when it comes to finding friends on Capitol Hill you have to take what you can and try to move things forward."

And friends they are going to need. The administration's fiscal year 2005 request, due out shortly, will reportedly come in light yet again -- $2.7 billion, with just $200 million for the Global Fund. The outside groups want to more than double the effort to $5.4 billion in the next fiscal year.

Senator Santorum, call your office.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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