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Nussle Heeds Calls, Boosts AIDS Funds

Acquiescing to calls by AIDS activists and religious leaders in Iowa, House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) has increased by $2.8 billion a funding stream that could bolster the international fight against AIDS.

Before the bicameral budget agreement was reached two weeks ago, Nussle had resisted increasing the $26.5 billion that his original budget blueprint had devoted to international affairs — an account that, among other things, funds the fight against AIDS in Africa. At the time, Nussle said that raising the amount wouldn’t matter, because House and Senate appropriators determine funding amounts on their own.

But under pressure from religious leaders in his politically marginal district, Nussle moved to increase the funding available in the House-Senate budget-resolution conference report for AIDS in Africa — a program that President Bush has called a priority.

Over the past few months, AIDS activists in Iowa and elsewhere — including Davenport Catholic Bishop William Franklin, Iowa Lutheran Bishop Phillip Hougen and pastors of individual churches in Nussle’s district — requested meetings with Nussle and held conference calls with his staff to press for more money in the budget resolution for AIDS funding.

In addition, rock singer Bono’s nonprofit Debt AIDS Trade Africa, or DATA, targeted Nussle with two days of radio ads in March. The ads contended that Nussle was preventing Congress and the White House from “dealing with this urgent crisis.”

They argued that the Senate’s decision to allocate $30.1 billion for international affairs in its version of the budget would send a message to appropriators that AIDS funding should be robust. The Senate language also included an explicit assumption that $1.45 billion would be spent on the president’s AIDS initiative.

In the end, Nussle agreed to designate $29.3 billion for international affairs in the House-Senate budget conference report, though without specifically citing how much money will be spent on fighting AIDS.

“I heard from a number of Iowa constituents who were concerned about funding for international programs fighting AIDS and other diseases,” Nussle said in a May 19 statement sent out by his personal office. “While specific amounts will be determined during the appropriations process, this agreement can support historic levels of funding for those efforts.”

The news is a victory for the Iowa leaders, who had warned Nussle that his intransigence on the issue could come back to haunt him at the ballot box in November. Nussle’s eastern-Iowa district backed Democrat Al Gore by a seven-point edge in the 2000 presidential race, and Nussle has faced serious Democratic challengers in almost every campaign cycle.

“I’ll be holding him a little bit more accountable,” Davenport Lutheran Pastor Jennifer Henry had said in an interview in April.

Nussle spokesman Sean Spicer acknowledged that Nussle agreed to come closer to the Senate funding number in the conference report partly because of his constituents’ complaints.

“He wanted to make sure they understood that he truly was supportive of” AIDS funding, Spicer said.

Seth Amgott, an activist with DATA, said Nussle’s reversal on the international affairs number shows the power that local activists can have.

“We wanted the whole Senate number, but we’re still happy. To the extent that it built a movement and political support, that’s much better,” Amgott said.

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