By Walter Alarkon - 06/30/09 07:24 PM EDT
A spending bill moving through the House ends prohibitions on Washington using federal money to register same-sex domestic partners and to provide them with benefits, and to fund needle-exchange programs that seek to provide clean syringes to stem the spread of HIV among intravenous drug users.
AIDS prevention groups hope Congress goes further by repealing a national ban on federal funding for needle-exchange programs in the appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), who is shepherding the financial services and general government spending bill through the House, said that his legislation helps reduce “undue congressional interference” in local affairs by ending funding restrictions on Washington that don’t apply elsewhere.
The moves have won praise from liberal groups that see the programs as good public policy.
“It’s just a local control issue,” said Hilary McQuie of the Harm Reduction Coalition, which supports more needle-exchange programs to reduce the transmission of HIV.
But GOP lawmakers are gearing up to keep the bans in the 2010 appropriations bill.
“We hope and expect that there will be some changes to those provisions in full committee,” said Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee.
Most of the bans were put in place more than a decade ago, when socially conservative Republicans controlled Congress. After Democrats took back Capitol Hill, they lifted a ban keeping District government funds from going to needle-exchange programs and domestic partnership benefits. But Democrats haven’t been able to end restrictions on federal money for those uses.
It’s unclear exactly much more money the programs could receive. House appropriators won’t release the text of the spending bill until the full House Appropriations panel takes it up next week. The bill was reported out of the House Appropriations subcommittee for financial services and general government last week.
Groups pushing for an end to the restrictions said that it won’t result in a huge increase in funding. Needle-exchange groups already get money from local areas, and Washington isn’t that large, with a population of about 600,000.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to take up its version of spending bill, which is likely to run into opposition if it eliminates the funding bans. The top GOP senator on the Appropriations subcommittee that will consider the legislation, Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), has been a staunch opponent of funding the programs.
McQuie’s group and other advocates of needle-exchange programs have asked Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, to end the national ban in the HHS spending bill. Obey, a centrist on social issues, hasn’t spoken on the national ban. In the past, Obey has pressed for spending bills that avoid hot-button social issues such as abortion, which he opposes personally.
David Stacy, senior public policy advocate for the Human Rights Campaign, said that it’s still worth ending the ban on funding for domestic partnership registration and benefits. He called it “a slap in the face to both the District of Columbia and LGBT families.”
“Symbolically, it has huge meaning,” Stacy added.
President Obama had come under fire from HIV/AIDS activists for not calling for an end to the prohibition on federal needle-exchange funding in his budget proposal. During his presidential campaign last year, Obama had expressed support for ending the ban.
Obama has also been criticized by gay-rights groups for not extending healthcare benefits to partners of federal employees in same-sex partnerships and for not having ended the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” rule against openly gay members of the military, something he has pledged to do.
The president, at a White House meeting Monday with gay-rights advocates, said that he knows he hasn’t yet fulfilled several promises on social issues, namely to end the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” rule against openly gay servicemen and -women.
“I know that many in this room don’t believe progress has come fast enough, and I understand that,” Obama said at the White House meeting.
Backers of needle-exchange programs and other social programs said they’re turning to Congress for changes to funding restrictions.
“We had always focused on Congress doing this, not an executive action,” McQuie said. “It was Congress that enacted it in the first place.”