By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation in the Senate and House of Representatives on Wednesday to extend for another decade a successful and popular program to combat AIDS worldwide launched 10 years ago by former President George W. Bush.
The bills feature several provisions to increase oversight of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR, due to expire on September 30.
The widely praised program is considered a catalyst for advancing HIV treatment, particularly in Africa. It supports more than 5 million people worldwide who are receiving anti-retroviral drugs.
The measures were introduced by Senators Robert Menendez, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Bob Corker, its top Republican; and Representative Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Ed Royce, the panel's Republican chairman.
The new legislation does not include appropriations for the program, which are handled separately. But congressional aides noted PEPFAR enjoys wide support from both parties and said they expected it would be funded.
President Barack Obama's fiscal 2014 budget request included $6 billion for global HIV/AIDS assistance, including $4 billion annually for PEPFAR. The House and Senate's proposed 2014 appropriations bills matched that amount.
Advocates said they welcomed the legislation.
"It's an important signal of recommitment to the PEPFAR program on the part of Congress," Chris Collins, vice president and director of public policy at AmfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, told Reuters.
Congress last reauthorized the program in 2008, eliminating a requirement that one-third of all money for HIV prevention be spent on abstinence-only education.
PEPFAR funding has fallen 12 percent since 2010. Critics have accused Obama, a Democrat, of failing to show the same level of commitment to fighting AIDS as his Republican predecessor, Bush, who poured $15 billion into the program to combat AIDS worldwide.
Obama has argued that his administration has expanded the program's scope without increasing spending.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)