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Nussle Feeling Heat From Locals

House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) is coming under fire from religious leaders and AIDS activists in his eastern Iowa district over the level of funding his budget blueprint assumes for international affairs.

Leaders from Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian and ecumenical groups in Iowa’s 1st district also are gently warning Nussle that he may feel their congregations’ ire this year at the ballot box if he does not agree to provide enough money in the budget to fund President Bush’s Global AIDS Initiative.

“I’ll be monitoring it closely,” said Davenport Lutheran Pastor Jennifer Henry. “I’ll be holding him a little bit more accountable.”

Ron Quay of Churches United of the Quad City Area, whose ecumenical group represents congregations in both Iowa and Illinois, said Nussle should not underestimate the depth of feeling in his district about AIDS funding and should know that many pastors will be letting their congregations know about Nussle’s ultimate position.

“I do think this particular area in Iowa is interested in an issue such as this,” said Quay. “It will get play.”

Bishop Phillip Hougen of the Southeastern Iowa Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, who represents churches in both Nussle’s and Rep. Jim Leach’s (R-Iowa) districts, echoed that sentiment.

“Iowans are somewhat more globally aware than people give them credit for,” said Hougen, who noted that his synod is closely linked to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania.

Many Lutheran pastors and laypeople in Iowa have visited the AIDS-ravaged African country as part of their mission and charity work, Hougen said.

While Nussle has won re-election by comfortable margins for most of his career, Democrats continue to mount serious challenges in the district and have generally kept Nussle’s winning margin to about 55 percent.

Nussle spokesman Sean Spicer said the seven-term lawmaker was willing to listen to his constituents concerns, but noted that the only number appropriators will be bound by is the overall $800 billion-plus discretionary spending total included in the House-Senate negotiated budget resolution.

“There are a handful of folks who are very adamant,” acknowledged Spicer. “Frankly, they don’t understand the budget process.”

Spicer continued, “What they should be putting their efforts and their energy into is in influencing the folks who control the foreign operations appropriations.”

Nussle’s budget plan would give the international affairs account, which includes global AIDS funding, $26.5 billion, while the Senate version designates $30.1 billion for that purpose — mirroring Bush’s request — and explicitly assumes that $1.45 billion will be spent on the president’s AIDS initiative. The House version makes no such assumption.

Appropriators will probably hew closely to whatever international affairs number is adopted by the House-Senate conference, but the overall number does not necessarily affect the amount the committee will give to combat the global AIDS epidemic, said House Appropriations Committee spokesman Jon Scofield.

“He’s getting a bum rap,” said Scofield of Nussle. “He made some cuts in the foreign affairs [budget] total which we’re probably going to make too, but it doesn’t say anything about AIDS funding.”

And one House GOP aide confirmed that despite the proposed international affairs cuts, AIDS funding would be “high dollar” this year.

But Hougen and other Iowa religious leaders say their request is rather modest.

“I think he’s in a very difficult position,” conceded Hougen. “But in the big picture, I think that at least coming up to the Senate budget resolution … should be possible. Although it’s a lot of money for those programs, it’s a small amount in the overall budget.”

Healy Thompson of the Student Global AIDS Campaign agreed.

“We’re not talking about some leftist numbers here. We’re talking about the president’s budget numbers,” Thompson said.

Time is running out, however, for the religious leaders and activists to influence the outcome of budget negotiations between the House and Senate, as both sides say they hope to come to a compromise this week or early next.

That’s why Hougen and others said they were nonplussed by the difficulty they had in getting Nussle to talk or meet with them until recently.

After initially rejecting Hougen’s meeting request, Nussle, a fellow Lutheran, finally agreed to speak with him and Davenport Catholic Bishop William Franklin in a conference call today.

“I requested a meeting [with Nussle], and he indicated that wasn’t going to happen,” said Hougen of his efforts in the preceding months to talk to Nussle. “I did have a nice conversation with his staff though.”

Hougen and Franklin represent close to a majority of churches in Nussle’s district, with Catholics and Lutherans dominating the area, Quay said.

Meanwhile, students at Nussle’s alma mater in Iowa, Luther College, recently tried to convince their president to revoke a distinguished service award given to Nussle.

Thompson said the activists were ultimately unsuccessful in their attempt to have the honor replaced with a “Distinguished Disservice Award.”

In addition, rock singer Bono’s nonprofit Debt AIDS Trade Africa ran two days of radio ads in the 1st district last month criticizing Nussle’s position on AIDS funding.

“Congress and the president have agreed on a bipartisan plan to deal with this urgent crisis,” the ad script reads. “But one person is standing in their way: Iowa’s Congressman Jim Nussle.”

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