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U.S. House approves Third World debt relief

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House Wednesday approved a foreign aid bill that includes the full $435 million pledged by President Clinton to forgive or alleviate the crippling debt burdens of some of the world's poorest nations.

The $14.9 billion foreign assistance bill was passed easily by a bipartisan vote of 307 to 101 and now moves to the Senate for approval.

The debt-relief measure, championed by the White House, charity groups and religious and cultural figures from Pope John Paul II to singer Bono of the rock band U2, allows the United States to pay its share under the global Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative to forgive the debts of some 30 Third World countries.

"This enables America to do something that is good and just and manifestly in our interests," Clinton said before the House vote. "It will go a long way toward ensuring our leadership for progress and prosperity in the 21st century world."

Leading an international drive to unburden hopelessly indebted Third World countries from onerous interest payments that lock them into a vicious cycle of poverty, Clinton pledged the loan relief two years ago. The Republican-led Congress had until now balked at fully funding his request.

"I remain skeptical but hopeful that the HIPC program will actually help poor people as intended," said Alabama Republican Rep. Sonny Callahan, who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees foreign aid.

Others were more enthusiastic. "Congress decided the richest country in the history of the world can afford to forgive debts to pay for new schools, childhood vaccination, and AIDS prevention for the poorest people on earth," said Raymond Offenheiser, president of the American branch of the charity group Oxfam, a leading debt-relief campaigner.

Revaluing IMF gold reserves

A provision in the foreign operations bill also authorizes the International Monetary Fund to revalue some of its gold reserves to free up hundreds of millions of dollars for additional debt forgiveness.

The gold revaluation language was a sticking point in the Senate, where Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, tied it to a list of conditions he said the IMF should insist on before granting relief to heavily indebted Third World governments, some of which have track records of waste and corruption.

"I don't like the bill. I'm afraid the benefits will be squandered or stolen by the same leadership elite that squandered or stole them before," Gramm told Reuters.

But he said he would not attempt to block passage of the bill in the Senate, where its approval is already complicated by a provision included late in the budgeting process that would raise the overall limit Congress can approve for discretionary spending by $37 billion.

The foreign operations bill, often a catch-all for political and ideological disputes, also lifts restrictions on $425 million in U.S. aid for family planning groups that lobby for abortions overseas. However, it restricts disbursement of the funds until Feb. 15, 2001 -- after Clinton leaves office.

The overseas assistance package earmarks $300 million to help fight AIDS in Africa and $100 million for Serbia, provided the government meets certain conditions, including cooperating with the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

It also includes $8 million for Yemen, half of which is to help in the hunt for the suicide bombers who attacked an American warship, the USS Cole, earlier this month.

Israel and Egypt are the biggest recipients of U.S. aid in the package, which provides funds for multinational organizations like the World Bank and a raft of overseas policy initiatives from nuclear nonproliferation to family planning.

While some Democrats have criticized the low level of U.S. foreign aid -- less than one percent of the government's overall $1.8 trillion budget -- others noted that the latest bill provided almost all the funds Clinton had requested.

"I really am genuinely proud of the priorities that are in this bill," said California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the ranking Democrat on the foreign aid appropriations subcommittee.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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Wednesday, October 25, 2000


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