Protesters arrested for occupying Kevin McCarthy’s office over Aids funding

Several people were arrested after entering the office of Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House, during a protest for HIV/Aids funding on Monday.

The US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar), a widely bipartisan program, has since been reauthorized three times, and Joe Biden earlier this year indicated that he would work with Congress to extend it a fourth.

But the program’s latest extension has been caught up in a partisan fight over abortion and is under threat amid Congress’s negotiations over a government shutdown. Some Republicans are opposing Pepfar’s reauthorization, arguing that current restrictions do not sufficiently prevent the funds from being used to support abortions, according to an August report by the Federation of American Scientists.

“Any multi-year PEPFAR reauthorizing legislation must ensure that Biden’s hijacking of PEPFAR to promote abortion be halted,” wrote New Jersey Republican Representative Chris Smith, who chairs the House foreign affairs subcommittee, in a letter to colleagues in June.

At McCarthy’s Washington DC office, Capitol police handcuffed six activists and escorted them away, according to Politico reporter Alice Ollstein, who shared videos from the scene at the Rayburn House office building, which is connected to the US Capitol.

Demonstrators were seen sitting and chanting in McCarthy’s office, demanding the Republican leader reauthorize key provisions of Pepfar, which are set to expire at the end of the month unless an agreement is reached.

The program was first established in 2003 by President George W Bush to prevent and treat HIV/Aids in developing countries worldwide, and it is overseen by the US Department of State.

About 20 million people depend on the program globally, according to a White House statement in January.

Smith was a co-sponsor of the 2018 bill extending Pepfar for five years but is now seeking to block its renewal after Biden in 2021 lifted Trump-era restrictions that barred Pepfar and other global programs receiving US funding from performing or promoting abortions.

While Pepfar can continue operating without congressional reauthorization, advocates say a failure to do so would signal diminishing US support for HIV/Aids prevention.

“Pass Pepfar now, McCarthy,” protesters chanted in the speaker’s office on Monday morning.

The demonstrators were members of NYC-based HIV/Aids nonprofits Health Gap (Global Access Project) and Housing Works, according to social media posts by the two advocacy groups.

The House returns to Capitol Hill from its summer recess on Tuesday as it races to reach a deal to keep federal agencies and programs afloat through December. The Senate returned last week.

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