26 July 2012

An Unlikely Foreign Aid Supporter in Congress

Source: AP
One of yesterday's highlights at the International AIDS Conference (IAC) was an afternoon panel discussion featuring Rep Barbara Lee, Sen Chris Coons, Sen Marco Rubio and Sen Mike Enzi. Lee and Coons are long time supporters of foreign aid and were not surprising to see at the conference panel. Enzi, a person who played an important role in the passage of PEPFAR, fit in well, but Tea Party darling Rubio appeared to be an outlier.

I was keenly interested to hear from Rubio in terms of his attitudes on foreign aid and support for AIDS programs. As a name that makes the rounds for the possible VP pick by the Romney campaign, Rubio's position on foreign policy is important given the recent Republican-led initiatives to de-fund USAID.

Stories today will likely focus on the battle fought between moderator Sen Frist and protesters who chanted during his opening remarks and jeered Enzi and Rubio when the two began speaking. What they will miss is the story of bipartisanship on the issue of AIDS, specifically the success of PEPFAR, and the stance on foreign aid taken by the junior Senator.

“Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle must work towards the goal of an AIDS-free generation. This is possible if we continue to strengthen our most effective programs targeting HIV/AIDS, both here in the U.S and abroad,” said Sen Enzi during his remarks.

The same sentiment was echoed by the respective panel members who remarked on the importance of continuing to support AIDS efforts in collaboration. PEPFAR, the one achievement by President Bush that just about every politician can point to as a tremendous accomplishment, featured as the example of what can be done when both sides work together in harmony. 

While plenty of stories focus on how bitterly divided the US congress is these days, here was an example of cooperation at work. A vote was looming for all panel members, in fact Lee had to leave shortly after her remarks to vote in the house, but there was nothing less that agreement between people who are supposed to be absolute foes.

What this shows is that there are points to rally around where members of Congress can come to an agreement. One person who may be able to achieve that could very well be Senator Rubio. While he has gained some attention for his tweets and remarks concerning President Obama, he strays from many of his Republican colleagues on the issue of foreign aid.

Frist posed a question to Rubio concerning the issue of the budget deficit and funding for programs like AIDS. He wanted to know how Rubio could continue funding programs like PEPFAR while addressing the budget concerns that he has expressed.

Rubio replied with a evidenced based argument pointing out that many Americans believe that as much as 25% of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid. "We don't have a debt because of foreign aid. If you zeroed out foreign aid it would do nothing for the debt, but would be devastating not just to the world but to America's role in it," he said.

Maybe foreign aid is a place where bipartisanship can grow in Congress and it appears that Rubio, given his views and popularity, may be one of the integral people that will form a new sort of coalition.