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Foreign aid flub

Senate Republicans are doing their party no favors by blocking popular assistance programs.

June 27, 2008

Note to congressional Republicans: Playing games with your own president's popular foreign aid programs, which enjoy bipartisan support and are helping to repair the United States' tattered international reputation, is not the pathway to electoral success in November.

Seven GOP senators have been blocking progress on a reauthorization bill for the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which may be President Bush's proudest legacy. The bill sets aside $50 billion over five years to combat AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in developing countries; it passed the House in April by nearly a 3-1 margin and was expected to sail through the Senate. But the record-setting price tag of the disease-fighting effort caused some conservatives to balk.

A flurry of negotiations this week seems to have satisfied some of the holdouts, but there was still enough opposition as of Thursday to keep it off the Senate floor. If it doesn't get through before the Senate adjourns today for its July recess, an important opportunity will have been lost.

Bush heads to Hokkaido, Japan, on July 7 for the Group of 8 summit, where foreign aid commitments will be a key topic of discussion. Passage of the AIDS bill would give him strong leverage to pressure other members of the club of wealthy nations to open their pocketbooks a little wider. The United States can't eradicate AIDS and the other deadly scourges by itself even with the $50-billion commitment, and some countries aren't doing their share.

Unfortunately, the AIDS initiative isn't the only crucial foreign aid program hitting a wall in the Senate.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) recently amended a war supplemental bill to cut $525 million from Bush's Millennium Challenge Corp. (about a third of its annual budget) and redirect the money toward emergency food aid in Myanmar and aid for Iraqi refugees. Millennium Challenge is a bold approach to foreign aid, targeted at creating important economy-building infrastructure in poor countries. Slashing its budget would punish nations that have worked very hard to open their societies and fight corruption. To devote the money to short-term food aid instead would be like taking away a man's fishing pole and handing him a fish.

Neither of these efforts is likely to succeed, but the pointless delays they're causing aren't helping the U.S. image abroad -- nor the GOP's image in the eyes of American voters.

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