WASHINGTON -- How much do seven members of the U.S. Senate weigh?
Eyeing them -- Tom Coburn, Jim DeMint, Jeff Sessions, Saxby Chambliss, David Vitter, Jim Bunning, Richard Burr -- I'd guess they probably come in at about 1,300 pounds. These are the Republicans who have signed a hold letter, preventing action on the reauthorization of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
Now, how much do 3 million HIV/AIDS-infected people -- the treatment goal of a reauthorized PEPFAR -- weigh? This is a more difficult calculation. Adults with advanced forms of the disease can weigh about 60 pounds. Children with AIDS are like a shadow falling on a scale. Maintaining weight becomes difficult with vomiting and diarrhea, with tuberculosis and fungal infections, with cancers such as Kaposi's sarcoma and lymphoma.
Even so, you'd think that a few million of these wasting bodies would weigh more on the moral balance than seven senators. But so far, you'd be wrong.
It is the nature of the Senate that the smallest of minorities can impede the work of the majority. But it takes a conscious choice -- an act of tremendous will and pride -- for members to employ these powers against an AIDS bill with overwhelming bipartisan support.
The seven, led by Coburn, complain that the reauthorization is too costly. They object to "mission creep" -- the funding of "food, water, treatment of other infectious diseases, gender empowerment programs, poverty alleviation programs" -- as though people surviving on AIDS treatment do not need to eat, work or get their TB treated. And the senators are concerned that AIDS funds might be used for things such as abortion referrals and needle distribution, though the legislation doesn't mention these possibilities. So they are pushing for the extension of a superfluous spending mandate requiring that at least 55 percent of PEPFAR resources be used for treatment, on the theory that this will starve "feckless or morally dubious" prevention programs.