The House disregarded strong White House objections and voted yesterday to withhold half of the country's dues from the United Nations if the world body does not cut its bureaucracy, redirect its budget and tighten its accountability.
The bill -- one of the most extensive and specific congressional edicts to the United Nations -- requires the creation of whistle-blower protections, an independent oversight board with broad investigative authority and an ethics office to thwart possible conflicts of interest.
It requires reductions in the amount spent on conferences and public information, dictates the restructuring of the budget, and insists on tightened standards for determining membership on U.N. human rights bodies. And the measure calls for the lifting of diplomatic immunity for U.N. officials charged with serious criminal offenses.
"Yes, this is radical surgery," said House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the chief sponsor. "Sometimes that's the only way to save the patient."
The 221 to 184 vote marks the second time this week that the Republican-controlled House has rebuffed the Bush administration on a sensitive issue. On Wednesday, the House voted to curtail the FBI's ability to seize library and bookstore records for terrorism investigations under the USA Patriot Act, despite the president's veto threat.
The White House and the State Department issued a sharp warning against the U.N. bill as debate began Thursday. The administration statement, although not including a veto threat, said the bill "could detract from and undermine our efforts" to change the United Nations and would "impermissibly infringe on the president's authority under the Constitution to conduct the nation's foreign affairs."
Nevertheless, the bill passed by a wider margin than the sponsors had expected. Its backers said that the United Nations' unpopularity in the country, combined with the investigations on how billions of dollars were spent on the organization's oil-for-food humanitarian program for Iraq, has provided the most favorable conditions in years for reining in an organization they have always distrusted.
The bill's success marked a revival of the wrangling between Congress and the United Nations in the 1990s. Republicans held up more than $1 billion in U.S. funding, and U.N. diplomats' parking tickets fueled the dispute. The most recent major legislation concerning the body was the Helms-Biden agreement of 1998, which cut the U.S. share of the U.N. budget.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is working with the Bush administration on a companion bill and plans to begin hearings next month, aides said. That means that a mandate to the United Nations is likely to go to President Bush for his signature during this two-year Congress, although it will almost certainly be less dire than the one passed by the House, said aides in both chambers.
At the United Nations, a statement from the office of Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that the House bill could "jeopardize" his own effort to streamline the U.N. bureaucracy at a summit on U.N. reform in September, and it said he "believes that U.S. engagement and leadership in this process is very important but does not feel that withholding dues is a productive route to achieving reform."
The vote on the Henry J. Hyde United Nations Reform Act broke along party lines, with just seven Republicans opposing it and just eight Democrats backing it. The Maryland and Virginia delegations split along party lines with the exception of Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (R-Va.), who voted against the measure, and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who did not vote.
Hyde's staff said one reason for the lopsided victory was the involvement of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who was the closing speaker and has long said it is one of the most important of the year. In a fiery floor speech, DeLay said the United Nations "has become one of the world's great apologists for tyranny and terror."
The vote was a chance for Congress to assert itself against an administration that has sought to strengthen its role among the branches of government. "It is not for the State Department or even the secretary of state to say when and how the resources of the American people will be spent," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.). Rep. Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.) said "bloated bureaucracy" and "anti-Israel bias" at the U.N. "goes against the grain of common sense in America."
The measure seeks to reorganize a vast, 60-year-old organization that has 45,000 staff members worldwide. In addition, it has more than 70,000 peacekeepers.
The bill requires the United States to withhold half of the dues assessed by the United Nations (currently $330 million out of a budget of $1.5 billion) if the secretary of state cannot certify by Oct. 1, 2007, that 32 of 46 conditions have been met. The bill allows an additional year for the other 14.
In addition to the dues, the United States will also pay about $2.5 billion this year in assistance to voluntary programs such as UNICEF. The House bill requires more programs to be moved into that category, because those programs seek funds from donor nations every year, giving Congress more control.
Richard C. Holbrooke, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during President Bill Clinton's second term, called it "the wrong legislation for the current moment" and pointed to the U.N. electoral assistance provided in Iraq.
Some U.N. observers warned that the vote could backfire, emboldening other countries to oppose U.S. initiatives to bring about change in the sprawling world body. John G. Ruggie, a former Annan adviser who is a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, said the bill is "going to land like a bombshell."
The House rejected, 216 to 190, an alternative by Rep. Tom Lantos (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee, that would have included the same criteria but would have given the secretary of state discretion in whether and by how much to withhold dues. Lantos called the Hyde bill "a legislative straitjacket" but said he believes "a fairly rational solution" will emerge from the Senate.
Lynch reported from the United Nations.