WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives on Thursday passed a controversial proposal to pay $582 million in back dues but hold back another $244 million to the United Nations until the world body reinstates the U.S. on a human-rights panel it was voted off last week.
On a vote of 252-165, the full House passed a compromise measure intended to send a strong signal to the United Nations that the United States would not tolerate the expulsion of the U.S. last week from two high-profile U.N. panels. The separate actions were taken on the same day in secret ballots.
The controversial issue threatened to pit the Bush administration, which wants to pay back the dues owed the U.N., and leading Republicans in Congress who wanted the U.S. to hold back at least some if not all of the money owed.
Before the vote, House Speaker Dennis Hastert spoke out in favor of the measure to withhold the money unless the United States is reinstated on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and the U.N. promised to end secret votes.
"I think there's an injustice there that ought to be addressed," he said. While the United States was ousted, the commission counts as members Sudan, China and Libya, he noted, calling them "some of the greatest perpetrators of human rights abuses in the world."
The amendment "would send a clear signal to the governments which did not stand with the U.S. on the U.N. vote," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., opposed the measure and sided with the Bush administration statement that its approval "would be extremely damaging" to America's ability to cooperate in multilateral organizations.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey had earlier predicted lawmakers were likely to adopt the compromise proposal. The Bush administration said such a measure "would be extremely damaging" to America's ability to cooperate in multilateral organizations.
Other reports, however, suggested the administration might accept the compromise measure in an effort to both send a signal to the U.N. and to prevent any rift with some congressional Republicans.
The full House was voting Thursday on a series of amendments to a bill funding State Department operations for the fiscal year that starts in October. Debate on some even more contentious issues, including funding for U.N. family programs, are due next week.
Many lawmakers, outraged by the U.S. ouster from the commission for 2002, indicated they would try to retaliate by blocking all of the $582 million in back dues.
But as a compromise, House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and Rep. Tom Lantos of California, the panel's top Democrat, introduced their amendment Tuesday. It called for allowing the $582 million payment but withholding the additional $244 million.
At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Wednesday that while the United States is disappointed over losing the commission seat, President Bush "feels strongly that this issue should not be linked to the payment of our arrears to the U.N. and other international organizations."
He noted there was a negotiated agreement involving key members of Congress for the payment of back dues to the United Nations. That agreement, Fleischer said, is a separate issue.
The United States has been on the human rights commission for more than 50 years, using the Geneva-based forum to target perceived human rights violators, especially China and Cuba in recent years.
U.N. officials had said they hoped the sudden disruption in U.S.-U.N. relations can be repaired.
"The Secretary-General [Kofi Annan] feels that any effort to punish the organization for what was a democratic process that involved action by member states would be counterproductive," said Fred Eckhard, a spokesman for Annan. "So we are just hoping that they don’t shoot the messenger, either target the whole membership or target the bureaucracy for what has happened," he said.
Officials in Washington and at U.N. headquarters in New York have privately expressed dismay over the recent and sudden deterioration in relations between Capitol Hill and the world organization. Annan had worked hard in recent months to mend long-broken fences with some of his harshest Capitol Hill critics, and had won praise from several Republicans for his efforts.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report