The Senate voted 66 to 23 last night to cut the U.S. contribution to the United Nations by more than $480 million over the next four years.
Brushing aside administration objections and Republican leaders' warnings that it would send a bad signal at a time of international crisis, a bipartisan majority of the GOP-controlled Senate approved the cutback proposed by Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.).
Kassebaum's proposal would cut $78 million--or 21 percent--from the $363 million requested by the Reagan administration as the U.S. contribution to the United Nations and its affiliated organizations for next year. The proposal would return this country's payment to its 1980 level of $285 million.
Additional cuts of 10 percent a year would be made in the three following years, adding up to a four-year reduction of $484 million, according to Kassebaum's staff.
The vote came shortly after President Reagan said he thought U.S. Ambassador Charles M. Lichenstein "had the hearty approval of most people in America" when he suggested that the United States would not object if the United Nations decided to move its headquarters from New York.
Kassebaum said she is a supporter of the United Nations and did not intend her amendment as a slap at the organization, but rather as a signal that its budget is "bloated" and needs cutting.
But other senators expressed frustration at use of the United Nations as a forum for criticism of the United States.
"If we're going to get constantly criticized, maybe someone else should pay for it," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said.
"The American taxpayers are sick and tired of playing host to our enemies and critics abroad," Sen. Steve Symms (R-Idaho) said. "This is a concrete way of sending a message."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) strongly opposed the Kassebaum amendment, saying it was a "mistake" that would hinder Reagan when he speaks to the U.N. General Assembly on Monday.
"We are undercutting the very agency on which we depend to maintain peace and stability in the world," Percy said.
Kassebaum's amendment was approved as a rider to a State Department authorization bill for fiscal 1984 that was left pending for final action today. The House passed its version of the authorization earlier, without a cut in the administration's request for U.N. funding. The difference will have to be worked out in a House-Senate conference.
Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) said he thought the vote was "unfortunate," but added, "I'm sure it's not the last word we'll hear on the subject."
In defending her amendment, Kassebaum said spending at the United Nations was "out of control" at a time when the United States is attempting to get its budget under control. U.N. salaries average 25 percent higher than those for U.S. federal employes for work that often provides "no tangible benefits to anyone except a few international bureaucrats," she said.
An aide to Kassebaum said the amendment would leave to the administration and the United Nations the question of whether the overall U.N. budget would be reduced or whether the U.S. share of it would shrink below its present level of 25 percent.
The last congressional cut in U.S. contributions to the United Nations was in 1972, when the U.S. share was reduced from 33 to 25 percent, according to Kassebaum's aide.
Virginia's senators voted for the funding cut, while Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) voted against it. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) did not vote.
In related action on the authorization bill, the Senate approved an amendment to permit the reestablishment of formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican, which were suspended more than a century ago.
The Senate also approved several measures that were rejected earlier in connection with a resolution condemning the Soviet Union's shooting down of a South Korean jetliner three weeks ago.