President Bush plans to address the United Nations General Assembly in late September — but he doesn't want to go without first paying $582 million in back dues, the second and largest of three bills owed to the U.N. by the United States.
The House of Representatives is threatening to delay that payment unless the president vows to support a bill aimed at undermining the International Criminal Court, which prosecutes war criminals.
Bush could find himself in a very awkward position if he appears before the U.N. empty-handed.
"It's an extreme embarrassment that the United States, one of the founders of the United Nations, one of the leaders of the organization, is in the same kind of arrears it has been for any number of years," said Anthony Arend, a government professor at Georgetown University.
House Republican leaders — including Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Whip Tom DeLay and Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee — are backing a bill that would make Americans exempt from the ICC's jurisdiction.
Critics of the ICC fear that U.S. operations overseas could put military and political leaders in legal jeopardy. Take, for example, the mistaken bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.
"This could be interpreted as an act of war, an act of aggression under the ICC for which President Clinton could have been brought up on charges," said Brett Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation. "It's outrageous."
Bush, too, is wary of the Court — but he wants the issue separated from the dues payment to avoid a humiliating situation for the U.S. He's trying to strike a balance without supplying ammunition to critics who call him an isolationist.
"I think President Bush's instinct is to draw back and say the United States should pretty much go it alone and avoid many kinds of international commitments," Arend said.
Defenders of the president see it a different way.
"The administration is taking a look at international issues and weighing them on their merits, supporting those that are in America's interests and rejecting those that are not," Schaefer said.
Congress goes back to work Sept. 5. The president addresses the U.N. three weeks later. During that short window of opportunity, the White House is hoping to iron out a last-minute compromise with congressional leaders.