Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, agreed today to a compromise that will allow the United States to repay a large portion of its debt to the United Nations.

Helms said he would allow the release of about $585 million of back dues in return for the 189-member U.N. General Assembly's decision last month to slash the U.S. share of the U.N. budget, saving taxpayers more than $100 million a year.

Although the General Assembly did not quite meet a congressional demand to cut the U.S. share of peacekeeping costs to 25 percent, Helms said the world body had gone "most of the way down the road" and "I'm prepared to do the same."

Helms said he was not ready to repeal a 1994 law that capped the U.S. contribution toward the cost of U.N. peacekeeping missions at 25 percent, but "I am prepared to support a technical change to that law to permit the so-called Year 2 payment, $585 million."

Helms lavished praise on Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, for "cajoling and generally browbeating our friends at the United Nations" into accepting changes in the formula for allocating its operating expenses and peacekeeping costs.

"We are all proud of you," Helms told Holbrooke at a budget hearing. "We have forced the United Nations to make much needed reforms, and we have protected the American taxpayer from unknown increases."

Under a bipartisan agreement fashioned more than two years ago by Helms and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Congress agreed to repay $926 million of debts to the United Nations in three annual payments. But the deal was contingent on the organization's agreement to cut the United States' share of its administrative budget from 25 percent to 22 percent and the U.S. share of peacekeeping costs from 30 percent to 25 percent.

In the end, Holbrooke persuaded other countries to make the full cut demanded by Congress in the U.S. contribution to the administrative budget. But he agreed to compromise on the peacekeeping budget, winning a reduction in the U.S. share to about 27 percent, 2 percentage points more than Congress wanted.

As a result, Holbrooke said today, "the United States will save over $100 million in U.N. costs over the next year and up to $170 million in 2003."

In an interview after the hearing, however, Holbrooke said the incoming Bush administration still must tackle some thorny financial matters, including more than $500 million in disputed dues. The U.N. Secretariat calculates Washington's debts at $1.3 billion. By the U.S. government's count, they total about $800 million.

The Helms-Biden legislation also says that a final payment of $244 million to the United Nations is conditioned on the world body's willingness to cut Washington's share of contributions to several specialized agencies, including the World Health Organization, from 25 percent to 22 percent.

"This doesn't clean up all of our arrears," said Holbrooke, who appealed to Congress to preserve full funding to the specialized agencies. "But it provides a good basis for the next administration to work on [U.N.] reform."