Beliefnet

WASHINGTON, Oct. 26 (AP)--Congress passed a foreign aid spending bill Wednesday that gives President Clinton the full $435 million he requested to forgive debts of the world's poorest countries. Rep. John Kasich said the support for debt relief was ``a historic act of grace.''

The agreement on debt relief, part of the $14.9 billion foreign aid bill for fiscal year 2001, was praised by both parties as a means of helping to free poor nations from crushing financial obligations to let them feed and educate their people better.

``This is the most important foreign policy initiative for the new millennium,'' said Rep. John LaFalce, D-N.Y. He said the bill is targeted to help alleviate conditions that kill 40,000 people around the world every day from starvation and inadequate medical care.

The foreign aid bill, which passed the House by a 307-101 vote and later the Senate by 65-27, also increases military aid for Israel, provides $100 million in conditional aid to the new government in Serbia and includes $300 million to fight HIV infections and AIDS around the world.

One of the last of the 13 spending bills Congress must pass for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, the bill was cleared for a House vote after a compromise was reached to lift a ban on U.S. aid for overseas family planning groups that advocate or participate in abortions.

The bill provides $425 million for family planning, lifting the ban on funding that Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said was a ``gag rule'' that ``jeopardizes the lives of women around the world.''

But anti-abortion lawmakers, who have fought for the funding ban every year since 1993 when President Clinton lifted the restriction first imposed by President Reagan, won inclusion of a delay in funding until Feb. 15. Their hope is that Texas' Republican governor, George W. Bush, will be elected to the presidency and issue a new order stopping the flow of funds to family planning groups.

Clinton has pushed hard for full U.S. participation in an international program to offer billions of dollars in relief to some three dozen of what are called ``Heavily Indebted Poor Countries.''

This month he assembled lawmakers, religious leaders of all faiths and advocates such as the rock star Bono to lobby Congress on the issue. One in 10 children in the most-indebted countries dies before his or her first birthday, Clinton said. ``This is a terrible omen for our shared future on this planet,'' he said, ``and it is wrong.''

One participant at that meeting, David Beckmann of the Christian relief organization Bread for the World, said the vote was a great victory for the world's hungry. ``Not since Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement has the grass-roots action of churches and people of goodwill so influenced our nation's leaders,'' Beckmann said.

The House in its original bill approved $225 million, and the Senate $75 million. The final figure of $435 million comes with the condition that be no new loans to benefiting the countries for two years.

Kasich, R-Ohio, chairman of the Budget Committee, said there's been anger and hatred toward the United States because of its economic plenty, and the debt relief effort would give this country an opportunity to share its bounty. ``This is not just forgiveness,'' he said. ``This is a down payment to give these countries a fresh start.''

Among the few who spoke in dissent was Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla., who said the 30 countries whose debts were being forgiven are among the least economically free in the world. ``You know they are going to come back (for more relief), because we are not requiring economic reform in these countries,'' Scarborough said.

The $100 million for Serbia would be cut off after next March 31 unless the new Belgrade government cooperates in the prosecution of war-crimes suspects.

Other features of the bill include:

  • $963 million for the Child Survival and Disease Programs, including the $300 million for HIV/AIDS. That's $248 million more than in last year's budget.
  • $135 million for emergency disaster aid to Mozambique and other nations of southern Africa.
  • $127 million for peacekeeping operations.
  • $1.9 billion for military aid to Israel, up $60 million from last year. Economic assistance to Israel is down $120 million to $840 million.
  • $1.3 billion for military aid and $695 million for economic aid to Egypt. Jordan receives $150 million in economic aid.
  • The bill is H.R. 4811.

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