Wednesday, June 8, 2005

A House committee yesterday voted to slash U.S. dues payments to the United Nations by half if the world body fails to enact sweeping reforms to its budget, human rights arm and peacekeeping missions.

By a one-vote margin, the House International Relations Committee rejected a softer Democratic alternative that would have given Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice the power to decide whether to withhold dues.

Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican and a co-sponsor of the bill, said anything short of a mandatory cutoff of U.S. funds was an “empty gesture” in the face of such scandals as the oil-for-food program and sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeeping troops.

“If you’re going to reform something, reform it,” Mr. Hyde said. “If you really believe it will kill the United Nations to make it accountable, let’s say so today.”

Bill opponents said the dues threat would revive the bitter U.S.-U.N. budget wars of the 1980s and 1990s, when U.S. arrearages reached nearly $1 billion.

Ranking committee Democrat Rep. Tom Lantos of California, who offered the failed alternative, said both the State Department and Secretary-General Kofi Annan — currently pushing his own reform program — have opposed cutting U.S. dues payments as a way to spur change.

He and other Democrats noted they were showing more faith in Miss Rice than were the Hyde bill’s Republican backers.

“The logic of putting ourselves in a straitjacket absolutely escapes me,” Mr. Lantos said.

Mr. Lantos’ amendment lost on a 24-23 vote, with two Republicans — Jim Leach of Iowa and Ron Paul of Texas — joining committee Democrats in support.

The bill then was sent to the House floor on a 25-22 vote, with Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley the only Democrat voting in support. Despite widespread anger in Congress at the United Nations, the bill faces an uncertain fate, and no companion bill has been introduced in the Senate.

The United States pays about 22 percent of the annual $2 billion general U.N. budget, a figure that does not include major peacekeeping, education and development programs.

The bill outlines about 39 specific reforms that must be carried out, from stricter budget and auditing procedures to revamping the much-criticized U.N. Commission on Human Rights. If the world body fails to implement at least 32 of the reforms within two years, U.S. dues payments would be cut in half.

The bill would also require the president to veto any new or expanded U.N. peacekeeping mission until U.N. troops are trained in an extensive new code of conduct.

“We’ve waited and waited and waited,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican. “The U.N. is fully capable of reforming itself, and they just haven’t done it. We have to conclude that up at the U.N., they just don’t get it.”

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday that the administration had not taken a position on the bill, but administration officials have been leery of the idea of withholding U.S. dues.

Patrick F. Kennedy, point man for the United States’ U.N. mission on management and reform, told lawmakers in March that withholding dues “is too blunt because it is not targeted enough.”

Another official yesterday said the administration had submitted its fiscal 2006 budget request — including full U.N. dues funding — and expected it to pass “without restrictions.”

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric declined comment while the bill was still in Congress.

But Mark Malloch Brown, Mr. Annan’s chief of staff, begged U.S. lawmakers last month not to revive the dues fights of the past, arguing it undercut Mr. Annan’s own reform efforts.

“You immediately cut yourself off from all your allies in this fight,” he warned.

A number of Democrats said the bill sponsors were actually trying to kill the United Nations, not reform it, by setting the bar too high.

An “American sovereignty restoration” amendment offered by Mr. Paul to withdraw from the United Nations was rejected by the committee on a 39-3 vote.

• Betsy Pisik in New York and Nicholas Kralev in Washington contributed to this report.

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