HIV activists arrested at U.S. Capitol after sit-in at Kevin McCarthy’s office

HIV activists staging a sit-in at House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's office
HIV activists staging a sit-in at House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's office Photo: YouTube screenshot

Police at the U.S. Capitol arrested seven HIV activists for staging a sit-in at the office of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). They were protesting Republican efforts to defund the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). PEPFAR is a hugely successful HIV prevention initiative in Africa that is estimated to have saved over 25 million lives since its 2003 launch by Republican President George W. Bush.

Activists from Housing Works and the Health GAP (Global Access Project), two HIV social justice organizations, were arrested on charges of unlawful entry after they refused to stop demonstrating, The Hill reported. Housing Works CEO Charles King and Health GAP Executive Director Asia Russell were among the seven individuals arrested.

The activists are seeking a “clean,” five-year funding reauthorization of PEPFAR since its authorized funding is set to expire on September 30.

However, House Republicans and conservative groups are seeking to defund the program over false claims that PEPFAR helps provide abortion access. The Heritage Foundation, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, and other conservative groups have threatened to withdraw their support from lawmakers who authorize PEPFAR’s funding. The battle is just one of several fronts that House Republicans are waging in their threat to shut down all federal government funding by September 30 if their demands aren’t met.

In a statement, King wrote, “PEPFAR has saved millions of lives. It is criminal for some members of Congress to treat it as a political football….PEPFAR has been essential in helping people in developing countries flatten the curve of HIV transmission. The United States has committed to the international goal of ending AIDS by 2030, and we cannot do that if PEPFAR is threatened.”

In a separate statement, Russell wrote, “House Republicans are playing political games with the lives of countless adults, children, and newborns with HIV and most affected by HIV across the globe and here in the United States. Extremists in the House have sunk to a new low. Never in the 20-year history of PEPFAR have lawmakers pulled such outrageous stunts.”

Earlier this month, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) blasted her GOP colleagues for proposing cuts to both national and international HIV programs.

Not reauthorizing this program, Waters said, “would endanger the lives of millions of people around the world who are living with HIV and risk the lives of millions more who are at risk. Moreover, it would undermine the United States leadership on global health issues.” She added that it’s “shameful” that the GOP wants to eliminate programs that have historically had “widespread support.”

The House’s most conservative and anti-LGBTQ+ Republicans, namely those in the so-called “Freedom Caucus,” are threatening to shut down the government by September 30 if their demands aren’t met, Vox reported. These demands include impeaching President Joe Biden, reducing military aid to Ukraine, and funding increased anti-immigration measures at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Republicans hold a slim House majority, meaning that McCarthy must get his party’s moderates and extremists to support a final government funding bill by the end of the month or else risk a government shutdown that voters may blame Republicans for. If McCarthy tries to create a bill that would pass with Republican and Democrat support while excluding the Freedom Caucus, the caucus’ members could try and oust him from the speakership.

Concurrently, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) is also blocking the Senate from approving over 300 military promotions, due to his opposition to the military’s abortion policy and its inclusion of LGBTQ+ soldiers. Tuberville’s block has left the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps without confirmed leaders for the first time in 164 years. 

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