The Bush administration said Thursday it opposed a House-passed bill that would issue an ultimatum to the United Nations (search) to reform or lose U.S. financial support.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns (search) told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "We believe withholding dues in order to achieve a wide array of specific conditions would diminish our effectiveness."

Burns spoke in support of widespread changes in the United Nations, including creation of a new human rights council with a mandate to deal with torture and other major abuses.

He called also for management and budget reforms, and said Secretary-General Kofi Annan's (search) suggestions for changes at the U.N. devote too little attention to problems in those areas.

The United States contributes about 22 percent of the U.N. budget, more than $400 million this year, and about 25 percent of peacekeeping expenses, which adds more than $1 billion to the U.S. bill this year.

Last month, led by Republicans, the House voted 221-184 for a bill that would withhold half of assessed U.S. dues if the United Nations did not take nearly four dozen steps to improve its accountability and root out corruption.

Failure to comply would also result in U.S. refusal to support expanded and new peacekeeping missions.

"History shows that when Congress stands tough, when it says that if you don't reform we are not going to pay, then change occurs," said House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., author of the legislation.

The Senate has yet to act on the legislation.

Burns said withholding dues would undermine U.S. efforts to play the leading role in reforming the United Nations. "It would represent a tremendous setback in the reliability and credibility of the U.N. in the world," he said.

Several other provisions of the bill "impermissibly infringe" on President Bush's constitutional authority to conduct the nation's foreign affairs, he said.

The committee chairman, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., agreed that a law requiring U.S. dues to be withheld would "tie the president's hands."

Last week, Lugar and Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., introduced a bill that would give the United States the right — but not the requirement — to withhold dues if the United Nations did not enact wide-ranging reforms.

Objecting to the House bill, Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., said, "Once we start down that path it is a very dangerous path." On the other hand, Sarbanes said, the United Nations seems open to reform.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, co-chairman of a U.S.-funded task force on the United Nations, said the president should have the authority to withhold U.S. dues.

In a scathing appraisal of many U.N. operations, Gingrich said reform should seek to undercut the power of the 120 small nations that together pay no more than 1 percent of the U.N. bills.

The current U.N. human rights commission must be replaced, Gingrich said, because it has been taken over by "extremists and murders." He called the United Nations' treatment of Israel "scandalous," describing it as "hostility institutionalized."

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

APTV 07-21-05 1557EDT