In Congress, foreign aid loses stigma of the past

The sizable package being assembled reflects global involvement since 9/11.

After years of wrangling over the need for foreign aid, Congress is closing in one of the strongest packages of assistance for poor nations in decades. New programs range from $15 billion to combat AIDS to a new $9.3 billion incentive pool for countries that adopt free-market reforms - and, unlike previous initiatives, they are attracting broad bipartisan support.

It's a sea change from the days when Sen. Jesse Helms hurled abuse at aid programs from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and prominent conservatives rallied the base with calls to "pull the plug" on foreign aid.

Since the late 1960s, foreign aid has been one of the toughest sells on Capitol Hill. Some questioned whether it was needed at all - or so wasted by corrupt regimes that it was irrelevant.

In addition, foreign aid has evolved into a key venue for Congress to rein in presidents, especially those of opposing parties. As a result, aid steadily declined relative to the size of the national economy, and Congress has failed to pass a bill authorizing foreign aid since 1985.

But the terrorist attacks on 9/11 linked foreign assistance to one of the most powerful incentives to action in Washington: a threat to national security. And President Bush's proposal to link big increases in aid to progress toward democracy and free markets, the Millennium Challenge Account, tapped into another selling point for conservatives: linking resources to some measure of performance.

"In contrast with the 1990s, we have a Republican president, so we're seeing some partisan solidarity. Also, the rationale for international involvement seems much stronger and much more closely tied to American interests since 9/11," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Calif.

An unprecedented aid bill

This week, the House of Representatives authorized $31 billion for the State Department over the next two years, including 24-hour broadcasting in the Middle East, a doubling of the size of the Peace Corps, and President Bush's three-year, $9.3 billion Millennium Challenge Account. House appropriators approved a $17.2 billion annual foreign aid bill - down from the $18.9 billion that President Bush requested - but likely to be increased after negotiations with the Senate.

Fine tuning the provisions

While the final shape of a US foreign-aid package will be determined after the House and Senate pass their versions of the bills, some themes are already emerging from this year's deliberations:

Leveraging Democracy: Under the president's Millennium Challenge Account, Washington will be linking aid directly to progress toward democracy and free markets. The bill authorizes $1.3 billion in fiscal 2004, $3 billion in 2005, and $5 billion in 2006.

To qualify, nations must meet criteria such as free elections, a free press, a commercial code, transparency in government, and an independent judiciary.

On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved $800 billion for the first year of this account, prompting protests from Democrats and aid activists that it would be difficult to reach the president's target at that rate.

AIDS funding: The House authorized up to $3 billion for the fight against AIDS in Africa, and expects to wind up spending some $2.1 billion, a 70 percent increase in real dollars over last year. "It's a lot more than most of us expected a few years ago," says Dave Peterson, director of the Africa Program for the National Endowment for Democracy. "It's taken awhile for people to realize just how devastating the AIDS epidemic is in Africa."

Abortion: At the urging of the White House, the House narrowly backed an amendment to the State Department authorization bill that would have withheld funds from the United Nations Population Fund on the grounds that it supports forced abortions and sterilizations. The UNFPA denies any such involvement. The vote passed 216-211.

This sets up a battle with the Senate, which last week backed an amendment by California Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) that ends a Bush administration ban on support to international health agencies or centers that fund or promote abortion. President Bush has said he will not sign a bill that included such a provision.

Delicate balance in Mideast

Middle East Peace: As in past years, Congress has included provisions in the aid bill that support Israel, including recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

Of special concern to the White House are new conditions that would block aid to the Palestinians, including $20 million to the Palestinian Authority, unless they conclude a peace agreement with Israel and break up terrorist groups. The Bush administration says that such conditions undermine the road map.

While visibility is higher for all these foreign-policy issues, they are also in competition with each other, especially for funding, experts say.

"While there is a lot more momentum for foreign aid than we have seen since the Cold War, the demands on foreign assistance are competing," says Lael Brainard, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "There is also a shadow competition with the reconstruction funds in Iraq, which Congress knows are coming."

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