Congressional leaders say bipartisanship, enthusiasm are key to continued AIDS support on the Hill

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Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), and former majority leader Dr. Bill Frist discuss spurring continued leadership on AIDS issues on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Despite much disruption from protesters – to the visual and audible discontent of event moderator and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) – U.S. Congressional leaders were able to get the point across Tuesday that in order to defeat AIDS support must come from both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) joined Sens. Chris Coon (D-DE), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) at a panel discussion Wednesday at the International AIDS Conference in Washington focusing on sustaining the engagement of the U.S. Congress in order to demonstrate and encourage continued U.S. leadership in the fight against global AIDS.

“I knew we had to take this on in a big way – it was too quiet on Capitol Hill,” Lee said, referring to the early 2000s and her work to create the Global AIDS and TB Relief Act, which laid the groundwork for the Global Fund, and her push for what became the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

But now the noise on Capitol Hill is defined by a very difficult period of a lot of partisanship, Lee said. “We have to keep our eyes on the prize,” and focus on moving forward and figuring out how to work together in a bipartisan way. It happened in the past, she said, and we can do it again.

One of the most impressive examples of bipartisanship was the passing of the bill that created PEPFAR. “That bill passed unanimously in both the House and Senate, unamended in less than two months,” Enzi said. “That never happens.” He noted that the reauthorization of PEPFAR in 2008, while still impressive, did not have that same unanimous support across the aisles – the kind of leadership and enthusiasm for creating an AIDS-free generation that is missing on the Hill.

The challenge is that, getting people excited about the fact that we can live in a world without people dying of AIDS, said Rubio, the junior senator from Florida, adding he has been pleasantly surprised by the bipartisanship of the support for these issues. “My bigger concern is that it’s an issue that’s lost focus domestically because people think that now that we can treat it, we can move on to other issues,” he said.

“I by no means am an expert, but I would say that I am committed to ensuring this is an issue that we remain focused on,” Rubio said.

He later commented that foreign aid in general is not the reason the U.S. has a debt crisis, adding that it makes up less than one percent of the nation’s spending. “In fact if we zeroed out foreign aid it would do nothing for our debt and devastate the world and our role in it,” he said.

He outlined many arguments familiar to global AIDS advocates, including that the willingness of the American people to fund these programs is a testament to the country’s legacy as a compassionate people, and that it’s in the national interest to support the health of the millions living on the African continent – potential partners in trade and prosperity.

“As much as any nation on the earth America is not immune to what is happening around the planet, and that includes AIDS,” Rubio said.

Protesters drown out Congressional leaders’ oration of accolades

Protesters made their presence known at Wednesday’s panel discussion.

“Repeal the pledge! Reform PEPFAR!,” shouted the eclectic group of demonstrators, urging that Congress remove the anti-prostitution pledge weaved into the otherwise impressive fabric of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) legislation – which prohibits funding to organizations unless they explicitly oppose prostitution and sex trafficking.

Rep. Barbara Lee introduced H.R. 6138, which would repeal the prostitution pledge, in the House – and protestors explicitly called out Sen. Enzi asking when he would introduce similar legislation in the Senate.

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