WASHINGTON -- Urged on by an Irish rock star, a televangelist and other odd ideological bedfellows, Congress is nearing approval of a major package to help write off debt for some of the world's poorest countries.
The $435 million Clinton administration proposal -- nearly double what the House approved last summer and more than five times what the Senate had previously agreed to -- is meant to fulfill the U.S. end of a much larger, multilateral initiative supported by other wealthy nations.
Advocates such as Bono, lead singer of the rock group U2, and the Rev. Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, have argued that debt relief is a moral obligation for a nation enjoying unparalleled prosperity at the turn of the millennium.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said Wednesday that he expects a debt-relief deal to be announced within days. His comment followed what he described as "congenial" talks between Democrats and Republicans -- a sharp contrast to the heated negotiations over several other remaining issues in the fiscal 2001 budget.
Most of those involved in the debt-relief debate agree that something must be done to help the world's poorest countries emerge from a staggering debt load that they are likely never to repay in full. In 1996, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank launched an initiative to help erase nearly $200 billion in debt owed by 41 countries, mostly in Africa. Last year, leaders of the major industrial powers meeting in Cologne, Germany, promised to accelerate the debt relief.
But critics charge that the proposed action, which presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush both support, may benefit corrupt regimes while not achieving its avowed aim of helping people in Africa and Latin America out of poverty.
This year's initiative has drawn heavy support from the Congress' Black and Hispanic caucuses, which closely monitor U.S. policy toward Africa and Latin America.
In July, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., a prominent liberal in the black caucus, teamed with Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., a Southern conservative, to force an unexpected House vote to raise the U.S. debt-relief commitment to $225 million in the next year. The Senate, by contrast, had voted for only $75 million.
Raising that sum still further to $435 million would represent a major victory for the pro-debt relief coalition.
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