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Congress Approves Third World Debt Relief

Posted on Thursday, October 26 @ 07:31:13 CEST by Macphisto

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

The Senate gave final approval to the $14.9 billion foreign assistance bill in a comfortable bipartisan vote of 65 to 27 after it easily passed in the House of Representatives by a 307-101 vote.

The debt-relief measure, championed by the White House, charity groups and religious and cultural figures from Pope John Paul (news - web sites) 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 of a debt pact struck by Congressional negotiators before the votes.

``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. Until now the Republican-led Congress had 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. ``We should be encouraged that we`re helping to change the world. This bill is an effort to share our bounty, to be a model and to help lead other countries to do the same,`` said Rep. John Kasich (news - web sites), an Republican of Ohio who helped spearhead the debt-relief effort.

``Today`s action by the U.S. Congress will assure that the IMF (news - web sites) can finance its commitment to the HIPC initiative,`` Shigemitsu Sugisake, the acting managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said in a statement. ``Without Congressional approval we would not have able to fully utilize the resources available to us to meet our debt relief goals.``

A provision in the foreign operations bill authorizes the IMF to revalue some of its gold reserves to free up about $800 million 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.

But Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who led the Senate bargaining team on the final bill, said ``there simply weren`t the votes`` to sustain Gramm`s position, although some conditions were placed on the debt forgiveness.

``Performance benchmarks are essential if we are to avoid seeing the same groups of countries and banks back in five years seeking the same relief all over again,`` said McConnell.

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

The overseas assistance package earmarks $300 million to help fight AIDS (news - web sites) 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 House foreign aid appropriations subcommittee.

By Christopher Wilson

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