May 2003 Senate Floor Remarks on HIV/AIDS

The following is text of remarks delivered on the Senate floor. 

May 13, 2003 – Senate Floor Remarks

Mr. President, the sequence we just walked through is very important. The sense of urgency for the HIV/AIDS legislation, for me, really boils down to the fact that every 10 seconds somebody is dying from this little virus, and that is something that is going to take leadership from the United States–the President, the Senate, and the House of Representatives–to act upon. Indeed, the President has acted; the House of Representatives has acted. The last hurdle to the reality of the United States being the true world leader in fighting HIV/AIDS is this body. When every 10 seconds a person is dying and we can make a difference, it becomes urgent, not just to this physician but to the Congress and to the United States.

Following the jobs and growth package this week, we will immediately turn to H.R. 1298, which is the bipartisan United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003. I plan to bring that to the floor as soon as we complete the jobs and growth package and to complete it this week. It is my hope we will have good debate. We will have good debate. There are people on both sides of the aisle who have participated aggressively in the discussion and, indeed, have moved legislation–not successfully–but moved legislation forward in this body. We will have the debate. We will dispose of the amendments and proceed to final passage by the end of this week on this urgent issue.

For the past 5 years, I have worked with Senators on both sides of the aisle, and House Members, all of whom are devoted to the idea that the United States can and, even more importantly, must play a leading role in our response to this global health crisis. It has taken a long time for people throughout the world, indeed the United States and–maybe a little bit longer than I and others would like–for the Congress to realize what a moral crisis, what a public health crisis this pandemic is, all caused by a virus, an infection which emerged in this country about 22 years ago–in 1981, not that long ago.

In previous Congresses, we passed legislation at the committee level. Sweeping legislation to accomplish the establishment of the U.S. leadership on the virus has been considered, but it has never made it into law. Now we have that opportunity. Indeed, I am committed to see that we seize that opportunity this week with no delays because it is such a huge global issue, an issue which I regard as one of the greatest moral challenges we have seen in this country in the last 100 years.

I have chosen to begin our debate with H.R. 1298 because it is the bill that offers us the best hope that we can get the job done in an expeditious fashion and one that best assimilates the thoughts and ideas and works of past legislation from this body, on both sides of the aisle, as well as in the House of Representatives.

What is making it possible now, after 5 years of working on this issue personally, again with colleagues from both sides of the aisle–it is very clear–is the leadership of the President of the United States. It was his statement in the State of the Union Address this year where the President didn’t just use rhetoric or give lip-service to the fight against this virus, but he made an unprecedented commitment to this public health challenge in a 5-year, $15 billion effort to combat HIV/AIDS globally. It was unprecedented. The President has claimed for our Nation the leading role in fighting this aggressive virus, this destructive virus, a virus that daily continues to take the lives of thousands of innocents, resulting in about 13 to 14 million young children today as orphans, and even that number will go to 30 to 40 million over the next 15 years.

It should be recognized that the bipartisan bill we will consider is a product of a lot of work. People say it is a House-written bill. If you look at it, first, it is overwhelmingly bipartisan; secondly, if you read through the legislation, you see that it draws upon much of the effort from this body, on both sides of the aisle, from the various committees, that have addressed emerging infections in the past–from this body as well as the House.

In the pages of that legislation, we will find much that is familiar in the proposals we have tried to pass before. Thus, Democrats and Republicans, once they read the bill, can claim satisfaction by finding that many of the provisions have been authored from Members on both sides of the aisle. That is the bill that is so close to becoming law. That is the bill we will be debating.

The consensus on the legislation to fight global HIV/AIDS is deep, but I have to say it is very narrow. I don’t reveal any secrets in acknowledging that there are very strong differences around the margins of this debate. But what is truly remarkable–people will see this as they look at the legislation itself, and I find it very encouraging–is that we have come to this point of consensus that will permit us to get this bill through this last hurdle, through the Congress, and to the President of the United States.

The bill we bring to the floor does offer a 5-year plan, $15 billion to combat HIV/AIDS on a global scale. The bipartisan support is reflected in the fact that only one House Democrat voted against this bipartisan compromise bill. Thus, it is not a Republican bill; it is not a Democrat bill; it is a bipartisan bill.

The vote in the House of Representatives was 375 to 41. The President and White House staff have reviewed the House bill, and the White House has informed me that the President would sign this bill as it currently stands. This means that Senate passage is the only remaining hurdle in the way of this 5-year, $15 billion commitment by the United States of America in the global fight against HIV/AIDS.

We must pass this bill. We must pass this bill this week. I know some of my colleagues would change the legislation and tweak it, given the opportunity. I know some would add a little here and take away some there, change the language as it is written. In a perfect world, I would like to make several changes in the bill that I think have some merit. But as someone who has invested years of my own life, in terms of developing the legislation in this fight against AIDS and in educating others about this issue, and as a physician and someone who is familiar with infectious disease and has experience in treating this virus very directly, I have reflected on ultimately what is most important.

My conclusion is that it is important for us to pass this legislation now and get this program established without further delay–not 6 months from now, not 3 months from now, not a month from now. It is a moral issue, and history will ultimately judge how this body responds to this devastating virus. There is no change I could personally propose to this legislation that is so significant that it would cause a delay in getting this bill to the President. Therefore, when we bring up the bill, I intend to offer no amendments. I will argue against any amendments. It is my hope that other Senators will reach that conclusion as well.

The bill is a 5-year authorization and it is important for us to remember that no matter what final shape this bill takes as we pass it, this is the first major step. We still have a lot of work to do, but this is the first major step. We will have the ability in future authorizations and in the appropriations process to make other changes, to take the next step as they prove necessary. But now is the time for us to get the job done, create the capacity for that global response, and to give the President of the United States the leverage he needs to attract similar leadership from the world’s other wealthy nations.

With this legislation, the United States of America will clearly be leading this fight and will become an example for the other wealthy nations to participate. Simply put, too many innocent children and men and women and young people have been infected by this terrible virus. Too many have died. We have failed to act in the past. We have had good intentions, but we have failed to act in the past. We must not fail these people again. This is our opportunity.

In closing, I appeal to my colleagues on both sides that we join together in passing this bipartisan bill. I acknowledge that it is not a perfect bill, but my conscience does not permit me to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is, without a doubt, one moment to put the global interests of others above our own differences and to do our work, to do good, and to reaffirm that which makes the United States of America not just a powerful Nation but indeed a great Nation.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.