WASHINGTON – The protesters stood outside the Russell Senate Office Building Thursday afternoon,holding giant,handmade medallions spray-painted gold with the Superman logo in the center,and funeral wreaths with “R.I.P” written at the bottom in black.
The medallions were for the senators described on the group's placards as “Global AIDS Superheroes.” The wreaths were for the “Global AIDS Super villains.”
“You can't bring signs into the building,” security officers told the group. “You'll have to leave them outside.”
There were murmurs of disapproval. The plan had been to deliver the medallions and wreaths to senators singled out for their roles in championing or opposing the U.S. Leadership Against HIV/AIDS,Tuberculosis and Malaria Reauthorization Act of 2008 (S. 2731).
An hour earlier,students,activists and advocacy groups and their supporters held a rally at Stanton Park and marched four blocks to Capitol Hill to demand the passage of the bill. The groups included the American Medical Student Association,the Philadelphia branch of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP),the New York-based African Services Committee and Africa Action,a group concerned with African affairs.
The bill would commit the United States to spend $50 billion over five years to continue the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief,known as PEPFAR. A small group of senators led by Sen. Tom Coburn,R-Okla.,has blocked Senate action on the bill,which the House has approved.
Besides adding $20 billion to the amount that the president requested,the bill would not stipulate the percentage of funds to be spent on abstinence-based prevention programs. The current program requires that 55 percent of the money be spent on direct treatment. Coburn has expressed concern about doing away with that restriction. Doing away with the restriction would allow flexibility to choose the most effective programs in each country,supporters say.
Mary Jennings,AMSA's legislative director,said in an interview that the main aim of the rally was to get the bill passed before President Bush leaves for the G8 summit,which is July 7 to 9. The Senate was in session Friday,but it had no votes scheduled and will be in recess next week for the Independence Day holiday.
Jennings said the bill would give the president a better chance to get other countries to commit more funds to fighting AIDS,malaria and tuberculosis.
The activists at the rally recognized Sens. John McCain,R-Ariz.; Barrack Obama,D-Ill.; Joseph Biden,D-Del.; Richard Lugar,R-Ind.; Mitch McConnell,R-Ky.,and Majority Leader Harry Reid,D-Nev.,for supporting the bill. They criticized Sens. David Vitter,R-La.; Jim DeMint,R-S.C.,and Coburn for blocking it.
The goal “is to have as good a bill as possible,” Jennings said,adding that a major concern was for a hard target for the number of health care workers that the bill would “train and retain,” as well as comprehensive sex education and prevention programs instead of abstinence-based programs.
As the crowd moved down the street toward the Senate buildings,passersby stopped to watch. A few whipped out their cameras or cell phones to capture the action.
The wreaths and medallions remained outside while the crowd split up and went in different directions. One group went in search of Biden.
The senator said he was optimistic about the bill's chances. He said PEPFAR and the current law were the president's greatest accomplishment. “I think we're going to get this done,” he said.
Meanwhile,representatives from Obama and McCain's offices accepted the “gold” medallions on the senators' behalf.
Sombo Mweemba,a Zambian peer counselor with African Services Committee,said a change in U.S policy on AIDS would affect millions. She said she was optimistic about the outcome because the Senate has shown signs of commitment to the cause.
“It's only a few senators that are stalling the bill,” she said. “The big guys are really for it.”
By 3 p.m.,the rally participants were making their way back to the buses that had brought them into the city. Many said people with power don't give issues like AIDS the attention they deserve.
“We need them to listen to us,” Mweembe said.