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Conservatives Aim to Shift AIDS Bill Away From IR

Conservative social activists furious with the International Relations Committee’s work on legislation to fight AIDS in Africa are pressing for the Energy and Commerce Committee to craft a competing bill that would undo the offending particulars.

The venue-shopping threatens to stall efforts by House Republican leaders to pass a key piece of the White House foreign policy agenda. President Bush is seeking a bill that would devote $15 billion over five years to combatting the AIDS crisis that has exploded across sub-Saharan Africa.

“The bill that came out of the International Relations Committee is a disgrace,” said Michael Schwartz of the Concerned Women of America, one of the groups trying to get a different bill out of Energy and Commerce. “These people [who pushed the bill at IR] are not even on the same planet.”

Energy and Commerce is indeed eyeing legislation to address Africa’s AIDS crisis. But key insiders say the White House, in spite of being somewhat in league with the conservatives in moving the legislation, is wary of ceding jurisdiction to that committee, out of fear that it could bog down the measure in a dispute over its funding stream.

In order to claim jurisdiction, Energy and Commerce would likely have to link the legislation in some way to the Health and Human Services Department, which the White House does not want to involve in administering the program.

“They really don’t want it to go through the Energy and Commerce Committee, and obviously that’s weighing on us,” one top GOP Congressional aide said, adding that he believes it would be a “stretch” for the committee to claim jurisdiction, based on the content of the measure passed by International Relations.

Some Congressional insiders expressed puzzlement at the tack taken by the conservative activists, questioning whether Energy and Commerce would in fact draft legislation that met their concerns. Others wondered why the groups appeared to be making the best the enemy of the good.

“You have some of our interest groups that don’t know when to declare victory,” a senior GOP aide sighed, noting that many of the same activists have been fruitlessly urging Congress to address Africa’s AIDS crisis for years.

The conservatives contend that the International Relations piece does not do enough to stress abstinence programs over condom use as a means of blocking transmission of the AIDS virus, and doesn’t ensure that money stays out of the hands of non-governmental organizations that provide abortion services.

Energy and Commerce has already held a day of hearings on the Africa initiative. Committee spokesman Ken Johnson said Tuesday, “We’re gonna play a role, clearly,” but indicated that Energy Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) is not inclined to one-up Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who chairs International Relations and is the sponsor of the bill that was marked up by his panel last week.

“Before we do anything, Chairman Tauzin is going to consult with Henry Hyde,” Johnson said. “Billy has the greatest respect and reverence for Chairman Hyde.”

GOP conservatives sought at last week’s markup to attach language to the bill that would address concerns about birth control and family-planning issues, but the efforts were defeated because of defections by GOP Reps. Amo Houghton (N.Y.) and Jim Leach (Iowa) on otherwise party-line votes.

“I don’t think this was the proper place to address these issues,” Houghton said of the conservatives’ concerns after the vote.

The outcome at International Relations prompted some social conservatives to openly — and quite uncharacteristically — criticize the management of the bill by Hyde, who is otherwise regarded as a champion for their concerns.

“I think Mr. Hyde was too courteous toward [ranking member Tom] Lantos [D-Calif.], who has shown throughout his career that he has no respect for human life,” Schwartz said.

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