Senate panel approves AIDS foreign aid

/ Source: The Associated Press

Senate Democrats are cutting President Bush's marquee foreign aid program to help emerging democracies and funneling more money to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis around the world.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday reduced Bush' $3 billion request for the Millennium Challenge Corporation to $1.2 billion. The program assists countries in putting in place economic and political reforms, but it has slow to spend prior appropriations.

The committee is boosting Bush's $4.2 billion request for the foreign aid bill's global HIV/AIDS account by $940 million. Lawmakers are adding $590 million to the Bush administration's request for a global fund to combat AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria; that is enough money to almost triple it.

Altogether, however, the committee would cut Bush's request for foreign aid and the State Department budget by almost $900 million, transferring money to domestic accounts favored on Capitol Hill.

Senate Democrats originally proposed a $1.4 billion budget for the Millennium Challenge account. But Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., sought to cut it by $200 million more, transferring the money to economic and military aid for Jordan.

Politics of abortion, gun control
The Senate's foreign aid bill, like the House's, faces a veto because it would ease restrictions on overseas groups that perform or promote abortion by allowing them to receive U.S.-donated contraceptives. A ban on direct monetary aid would remain in place.

The Senate committee also voted 19-10 to reject a move by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., to loosen restrictions on local law enforcement agencies' ability to gain access to gun-purchasing data that would be used to trace the movement of illegal guns around U.S.

Five Democrats, including the committee chairman, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., sided with the National Rifle Association in opposition to Mikulski's effort.

Such restrictions have been in place for almost four years as part of a separate spending bill covering the Justice Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Gun control groups say the restrictions hamper law enforcement authorities' ability to trace illegal guns and arrest weapons traffickers.

Gun rights groups such as the NRA say the data-sharing restrictions protect gun owners' privacy and prevent lawsuits against gun dealers.

The vote came on an amendment by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., to strengthen and make permanent the restrictions on availability of the bureau's gun trace data.

Justice and NASA
The $54.6 billion Justice Department bill also fully finances NASA's budget, as well as Bush's initiative to boost basic research and improve training and recruitment of math and science teachers.

The measure contains increases totaling $3.8 billion above Bush's February budget. That is more than 7 percent and is sure to draw a veto threat.

The House voted 240-179 to pass a $21.4 billion bill funding the Treasury Department and White House budgets, as well as numerous agencies. The low-profile bill is one of the few measures not facing a veto threat over its cost.

That bill originally faced a veto threat over a move by Democrats to allow the use of U.S. taxpayer funds to implement the District of Columbia's domestic partnership law.

But Republicans, led by Rep. Virgil Goode of Virginia, won a 224-200 vote to block federal funds from being used the run the D.C. domestic partnership program. The GOP move won't have a practical impact , however, since the district government uses locally raised money to implement the law.

Democrats did manage to beat back an amendment by Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., to restore language in the D.C. budget that would block the city from subsidizing needle exchange programs aimed at curbing the spread of the AIDS virus among heroin users.

Earmark battle
Democrats and Republicans alike combined to kill a home-district project sought by Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C.: the Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree Project, an economic development initiative in Mitchell County.

McHenry's $129,000 project would have doubled retail space available for a gift shop selling products - typically made by former factory workers whose plants have closed - such as Christmas tree ornaments, handmade soaps and pottery.

The 249-174 vote came on an amendment by Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who had never before won a full House vote in his crusade against earmarks.

But McHenry is a vocal conservative who rubs Democrats the wrong way and many of them reversed their typical voting patterns.