Senate passage of a billion-dollar AIDS research and education bill shows that the government has finally "declared war on the virus and not on the victims," supporters say.
The Senate voted 87-4 for the $1.1 billion bill Thursday night after agreeing unanimously to require AIDS tests on people convicted of state or federal crimes related to sex or intravenous drug use.The focus now shifts to the House, where a bill covering research on AIDS is committee but measures addressing other portions of the Senate legislation have not been introduced.
The Senate bill authorizes $665 million for state and federal AIDS education programs, increased hiring at the National Institutes of Health, a new home health care program for AIDS victims and special efforts to help high-risk minorities and intravenous drug abusers. A committee aide said open-ended research money would bring total annual spending to about $1.1 billion.
"Finally, we have declared war on the virus and not on the victims in our battle against AIDS," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who as chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee spearheaded support for the bill.
Victor Basile, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the national political action committee for the gay and lesbian community, said he was "delighted" with the bill, which he said "for the first time establishes a national policy on AIDS."
During frequently bitter debate, the Senate rejected or weakened a number of amendments proposed by conservatives, several of them by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.
The most controversial was Helms' attempt to renew an expiring 1987 ban on federal money for educational materials that allegedly promote or encourage homosexual activity. The ban passed 94-2 last year, but some senators said it has hampered public health efforts to reach the gay community.
Helms' drive was fueled by a gay-oriented AIDS education videotape he viewed with several senators on Wednesday. "I thought that I had seen everything until I saw this video," said the North Carolina Republican. "There's something wrong when federal tax dollars are used for this garbage."
But the bill's Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told his GOP colleague that he ought to consider public health concerns and not just moral ones. "We have to tell homosexuals more than simply to become heterosexuals," he said.
The Senate agreed to the Helms amendment, but the victory was brief. Lawmakers also voted for a Kennedy amendment that said nothing in the bill should prevent the dissemination of accurate information to people at risk effectively superseding the Helms provision.
The debate provoked a number of outbursts. At one point Majority Leader Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., tried to get a quick vote on a provision but Sen. Lowell Weicker, R-Conn., wouldn't let him.
"What the hell could be more important than 1.5 million people who are going to die?" Weicker exploded. "I suggest we should just stick to this business and just do it or not do it and go home."
The final version says federal money could not be used for clean-needle programs unless the surgeon general concludes they help stop drug addiction or the spread of AIDS. A disgusted Helms said "it's just a matter of time" before federal dollars flow toward the programs.