WASHINGTON-Bipartisan success stories are about as rare in Washington as unicorns, but evangelicals, gay activists, Republicans, and Democrats gathered Thursday to celebrate one success story together: the United States' fight against global AIDS.
President Obama spoke at an event commemorating World AIDS Day at George Washington University, joined by African health workers, Bush administration advisers, Bono, Alicia Keys, Saddleback Church's Kay Warren, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, and Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee.
"The fight's not over. Not by a long shot," Obama said at the gathering. "This is a global fight which America must continue to lead."
Foreign aid is often first on the budget chopping block, and the House of Representatives initially chopped massive chunks out of global AIDS programs earlier this year, but the deep cuts didn't make it into the final spending bill.
"When you are going through budgetary struggles it seems to me the best thing to do is set priorities and focus on what is effective," said former President George W. Bush, whose 2002 initiative on global AIDS became his signature achievement. He spoke on a streaming video from Tanzania, where he is doing AIDS-related work with his family.
"There is nothing more effective than PEPFAR [the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief]," Bush said. "And when I say it's effective, I'm not guessing."
In eight short years, the United States' efforts on the global AIDS front have put nearly 4 million HIV/AIDS patients on antiretroviral treatment, when only 50,000 received antiretroviral drugs before the program. In the last year, the program has provided drugs to 600,000 mothers to prevent HIV transmission to their babies. The U.S. global AIDS effort is unique in that it partners with churches, nonprofit organizations, and local governments on the ground to administer programs and distribute drugs.
"The church is an existing distribution channel," explained Kay Warren, who oversees Saddleback Church's global AIDS program.
Obama told Congress, "Keep working together and keep the commitments you've made intact."
Rubio, when asked about funding the programs in a tough economy, said, "The economy will be even tougher if people are dying and not entering the work force." Rubio mentioned the United States putting a man on the moon, and said about the global AIDS effort, "This accomplishment that we're working on is the greatest thing that this nation has ever been a part of."
Bono, on the panel with Rubio, turned to a streaming video and asked "Bill from Little Rock" (former President Bill Clinton) the best way to communicate to Americans the worthiness of the programs. Clinton said the programs were a national security investment, building deep friendships in Africa for less than 1 percent of the government's budget.
Obama announced Thursday a new goal to provide treatment to 2 million more patients with HIV/AIDS by 2013, bringing the total number receiving drugs to 6 million, a number far beyond the program's initial goals. He urged China, among others, to start giving to the Global Fund, a fund for the efforts to which the United States is the chief contributor.
Obama thanked Bush for "his bold leadership on this issue. I believe history will record the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief as one of his greatest legacies."
Bush said, "There is no greater priority than living out the admonition, 'To whom much is given, much is required.' We're blessed in the United States of America. I believe what is required is to support effective programs that save lives."
Regardless of federal funds, "The church is a stable being," said Warren after the president's speech. Saddleback doesn't receive funding from PEPFAR. "That's the beauty of the role of the church," she said. "Governments change, regimes change, but the church is always going to be there."