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Bono Plays Money Game

He may be a rock star, but even Bono realizes that it’s crunch time — appropriations season — in Washington right now.

After repeatedly pressing President Bush and top Congressional and White House officials to focus on the AIDS pandemic sweeping sub-Saharan Africa, Bono was pleased when Bush signed historic legislation on May 27 committing the U.S. government to spending $15 billion over the next five years fighting the disease throughout the troubled continent and in the Caribbean.

But the lead singer of the band U2 is enough of a student of American politics to know an authorization bill is different from an appropriations bill. And he is alarmed now that the White House only wants $2 billion for the African AIDS crisis over the next year, not the $3 billion originally anticipated.

In his view, it could be a disaster internationally — especially in the developing world — if the United States does not deliver on its pledge. And Bono plans to give that message personally to Bush in a one-on-one session scheduled for today.

“For the extra $1 billion, this contentious extra $1 billion, you’re going to be able to prevent 1.6 million — one million, six hundred thousand people — from getting infected [with HIV/AIDS],” Bono said yesterday in an interview with Roll Call.

“Four hundred thousand people, you can actually save their lives by putting them on the antiretroviral drugs. That’s an extraordinary impact.”

Bono said he understands the divergent forces pulling at the president — the huge costs of occupying Iraq and rebuilding Afghanistan, including an $87 billion supplemental spending request likely to be formally sent to the Hill this week; an economy that is only slowly improving and is still hemorrhaging tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs; and an ocean of budgetary red ink that threatens to overwhelm domestic spending priorities.

Bono, though, believes the White House must follow through on this issue or face long-term political fallout far out of proportion to the amount of money involved.

“It will be seized upon as proof that George Bush is insincere, that his so-called ‘historic AIDS initiative’ wasn’t, in fact,” insisted Bono. “That it was an incremental improvement in AIDS numbers, [Bush’s Africa trip in July] was a showpiece and that the Irish rock star was an idiot for standing in the photographs.”

Bono added: “I don’t believe that. I believe that Bush is sincere. I believe that people in his administration are sincere. … I want the world to believe this president is serious.”

Bono will also press his case in private meetings with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

He will also be meeting with key appropriators in both chambers during a 72-hour blitz of official Washington, proving that, once again, being a rock legend does have its advantages when it comes to getting face time.

But Bush himself is the key for Bono, and the activist knows it.

Despite the president’s support for the African AIDS initiative, which added billions to existing U.S. relief efforts in that region, as well as a parallel program called the Millennium Challenge Account, White House officials have been adamant in arguing that the nations hit hardest by AIDS don’t have the “absorptive capacity” to accept and constructively use the full level of American aid in the first year.

The Bush administration instead believes those nations must “ramp up” to full speed, which led to a White House request for only $2 billion in next year’s budget for the AIDS program, a move that infuriated some international organizations who charged that the administration was undercutting its own proposal even before it got off the ground.

The White House, however, has stuck to its guns and GOP leaders in both the House and Senate, including Frist, have repeatedly voted against Democratic amendments designed to boost the funding levels for the two programs. But that didn’t stop Frist and other Senate Republicans from voting for a nonbinding resolution calling for full funding of the program, which angered Democrats like Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Patrick Leahy (Vt.).

“We must ensure that funds are being used effectively and responsibly too, while getting them as quickly as possible to those who urgently need our help,” Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) wrote in a “Dear Colleague” in late July.

Kolbe, who is friendly with Bono, is the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on foreign operations.

“[Bush’s] plan has been to ramp up funding over these five years in order to meet the $15 billion pledge,” added Kolbe. “I support this approach.”

In order to counter the concerns of the White House and GOP Congressional leadership, Bono and his allies have launched a two-pronged argument.

First, that the United States is morally bound by its own history as a benevolent world power, including the unprecedented Marshall Plan that funded the reconstruction of Europe after World War II, to demonstrate global leadership on this issue and stand by Bush’s commitment in January.

Secondly, that failure to address the AIDS crisis could lead to further political instability in Africa, possibly resulting in another situation like Afghanistan under the Taliban regime where terrorist groups were allowed to operate openly, striking targets throughout the world.

“The Marshall Plan … was billed as a bulwark against Sovietism in the Cold War. We’re saying, “See this as a bulwark against extremism in the hot war,” said Bono, who has taken a strictly nonpartisan approach to the issue.

Bono said the Bush of earlier this year is the president he will be appealing to for help.

“Take a look at the president’s State of the Union speech. It’s inspiring stuff,” Bono said Monday. “He talked about how we’ll get the drugs to these people with motorcycles and bicycles if we have to. That’s the president that I hope that I’m meeting tomorrow. The entrepreneurial president. … The guy that’s going to bang the desk and say, ‘This is the right thing to do. Let’s do it.’ That’s the guy I’m going to see tomorrow.”

Bono has started a nonprofit organization called DATA (Debt/AIDS/Trade/Africa) to help focus attention on AIDS and debt relief, among other topics, as well as give him a staff in Washington and London to monitor political events.

But after DATA Executive Director Jamie Drummond was quoted in mid-July saying that Bush “needs to be forcing the hands of people in Congress” on African AIDS funding, Frist’s staffers objected, seeing it as a slight on the Senate GOP leadership.

Some Republicans have also been rubbed the wrong way by the inclusion of financier George Soros among the organization’s backers, pointing to the fact that Soros has pledged millions to Democratic-allied organizations seeking to oust Bush.

But Bono dismissed such complaints as missing the point, especially with 7,000 people dying every day from AIDS, and vowed to stay engaged no matter what happens.

“I’ve been let in,” Bono said with a laugh. “The bigger problem is trying to get me to leave.”

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