As Congress Completes Tax Package, Leaders Look Toward AIDS Bill, Debt Ceiling

Posted May 15, 2003 at 2:14pm

With the Senate expected to wrap up work on the tax package tonight, Congressional leaders began turning their attention to other issues Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) ducked in and out of the amendments “vote-o-rama” in order to plug the global HIV/AIDS bill, which is scheduled to come to the floor immediately after the Senate dispenses with the tax package.

“This is the great humanitarian challenge of the 21st century,” Frist told a score of ambassadors from African nations. “This little tiny virus … will kill 60 million people over the next 30 years.”

To expedite enactment, the Senate plans to take up the House-passed version of the bill, which would provide $15 billion over five years to fight the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

Democrats hope to strip some of the House-passed provisions supported by social conservatives, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) wants to offer an alternative.

The House bill encourages the “ABC” (Abstinence, Be faithful and Condom) program that has been successful in Uganda, but puts more emphasis on abstinence. And it would permit faith-based groups to opt out of condom distribution programs.

On the House side, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said he wants to take up Medicare reform legislation with a prescription drug component soon after the Memorial Day recess.

Before the House moves on to that, however, Democrats want a debate over raising the debt limit.

The House agreed to raise the ceiling by $984 billion when it passed the budget resolution. But the Senate must vote on the lift before adjourning; otherwise, the federal government would default.

Senate Democrats wanted to vote on the debt-ceiling legislation first, to highlight the fact that the Republican-sponsored tax package would add to the deficit — but their efforts were rebuffed.

Now House Democrats want Hastert to agree to keep the chamber in session until the Senate finishes its work.

“It would be extremely irresponsible and reckless of the House to engage in brinkmanship with the full faith and credit of the United States government by adjourning before Congress completes action on the debt limit in order to force the Senate to approve the administration’s request for another blank check to finance the course of deficit spending in perpetuity,” House Demcorats wrote Hastert on Wednesday in a letter signed by Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and the chairmen of the Blue Dog Coalition.

If the Senate alters the House bill, the House would have to vote on the change before the ceiling could be raised.

Hastert has yet to respond to the letter, a Pelosi spokesman said.

The Speaker is not going to do so because the point will be moot, according to his spokesman, John Feehery. “The Senate’s going to pass our bill; end of story,” he said.

As for Pelosi’s charge, Feehery said: “We used the rule [to increase the debt limit] created by her predecessor,” Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).

At her weekly press briefing Thursday, Pelosi accused House Republicans of trying to avoid debating the issue.

As to what the Democrats would do to force a debate, Pelosi said: “Any arrows in our quiver are better used at the time than to give warning.”