Sens. Lindsey Graham and Patrick J. Leahy hosted Sir Elton John at the Capitol Tuesday evening as part of a push to ensure funding for the bipartisan effort to combat AIDS.
The South Carolina Republican and Vermont Democrat, who serve as chairman and ranking member on the Appropriations subcommittee that handles foreign operations, praised the legendary musician's efforts, along with those of U2's Bono and others involved with the ONE Campaign.
"What I get from this room at this very moment is togetherness. It feels very good. So much of the world is torn apart by not speaking to each other, and Sen. Graham says ... this is a bipartisan thing. This is something that we have to come together on," Elton John said. "There's a lot of love in this room."
He also thanked the support of Graham and Leahy's counterparts in the House, Republican Rep. Kay Granger of Texas and Democratic Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York. The two veteran appropriators weren't in attendance, but the House is in recess this week.
"I'm here to say once again that we cannot have lost 40 million lives to HIV and AIDS in vain," Elton John said, praising the development of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDs Relief (known as PEPFAR) by President George W. Bush with bipartisan support and subsequent U.S. investments to combat the disease.
"Our work is not done yet," Elton John said. "Although PEPFAR and the Global Fund have made a huge impact, the reality is that most people living with or at risk of contracting HIV do not have access to lifesaving prevention, care and treatment. But all of that can change, and will change, if Congress remains steadfast in its commitment to ending this epidemic."
Graham spoke specifically to the risks to existing funding streams is the automatic sequestration cuts are not eliminated, warning that progress against HIV and AIDS could be undone.
"If we don't fix sequestration, we're going to screw up everything we've worked for," Graham said. "The federal government, Republicans and Democrats, have been investing in this program for a very long time. Seventy-five percent reduction in mother-to-child AIDS transmission in the last decade. We really are making progress, and the federal government's share of this effort is very much in jeopardy. The private sector can do only so much."
"To the taxpayers of South Carolina: this is the best return on investment I've ever seen anywhere in a federal budget. You can see people who are alive today because of the money you've generously given. It has been well-spent. It has been transparent," Graham said. "Let's turn around sequestration and make sure we get inside not only the 10-yard line, but score a touchdown and stop this deadly disease."
Leahy, who spoke just before Graham, emphasized that support for the fight to eradicate AIDS has long crossed partisan lines.
"What we've tried to do is establish in a more and more polarized Congress that there's one thing that is truly bipartisan and that's finding funding to combat HIV/AIDS," Leahy said. "So, I don't care what political party you represent, I'm glad you're here."
"Even though HIV/AIDS was identified more than three decades ago, it's still a serious problem here in the U.S. We have to do better. We have famous people who come to the Congress looking for help and all for the day, they're in the paper, they leave. That's different with Sir Elton John," Leahy said.
Other senators made appearances, including Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee, Armed Services Chairman John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware. Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church also attended the Tuesday reception. He and Elton John are scheduled to testify Wednesday at the subcommittee led by Graham and Leahy.
"The sooner we can eradicate this disease, the more stability — and better off we'll all be," Graham said. "This is one bastion of bipartisanship in a place where it's harder and harder to find common ground. And I think the fact that Rick Warren and Sir Elton John can find common ground tells me that the Congress is on the right track."
But, Graham also had a message for the head of state in Elton John's home county, Queen Elizabeth II.
"I have not been knighted. It was one of the great injustices of our time, in case the queen's listening," Graham said.
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