Congressional Democrats alleged Wednesday it would be illegal for President Trump to withhold money from the World Health Organization, igniting a dispute that echoed the impeachment showdown over Trump’s delay of security assistance to Ukraine.

“The president’s halting of funding to the WHO as it leads the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic is senseless. We can only be successful in defeating this global pandemic through a coordinated international response with respect for science and data,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

“This decision is dangerous, illegal and will be swiftly challenged,” Pelosi said.

Pelosi’s comments came a day after Trump declared he would suspend payments to the WHO in response to the United Nations agency’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump criticized the WHO for opposing his decision in January to block and quarantine travelers from China and also accused the WHO of mismanagement and abetting a Chinese coverup of the early stages of the pandemic.

Trump’s announcement set off a torrent of criticism from Democrats and international health experts who accused the president of trying to deflect blame from his own mishandling of the situation while weakening the principal international organization leading the response to the pandemic. Bill Gates, whose foundation is the second-largest donor to the WHO after the U.S. government, said the decision was “as dangerous as it sounds.”

Trump administration officials defended the decision, which also won support from some congressional Republicans.

President Trump accused the World Health Organization on April 14 of "covering up the spread of the coronavirus." (The Washington Post)

“Cutting off funding at this time is the right move,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “This is a critical time for worldwide public health, and we cannot afford China apologists running the WHO. I support a suspension of funding by the United States until there is new leadership at the WHO.”

The debate on Capitol Hill quickly turned to the president’s authority to take the step he had announced, and shades of the impeachment battle immediately emerged. In the impeachment fight, the U.S. Government Accountability Office determined the White House had violated the law by delaying funding for Ukraine that Congress already had approved. Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives over this and other issues in December and acquitted by the Senate in February.

Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said it was worth pressing for greater transparency, balance and timeliness in the WHO’s response — but that the middle of a global pandemic was not the time to do it, especially as the virus threatens less-developed parts of the world.

“This is sort of like shooting at an ambulance because you don’t like how quickly they responded to the first call, when you’ve still got lots of wounded,” Coons said.

A senior Democratic aide said in response to the president’s move, “We are reviewing all of our options, including asking GAO for an opinion given their opinion that the President’s hold on Ukraine funding was illegal.” The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

U.S. funding for the World Health Organization flows from two pots: dues that are assessed by the WHO and appropriated annually by Congress and voluntary contributions made by the United States in response to various health emergencies or needs. For 2020, the assessed contribution is about $120 million, of which the United States already has paid half. Annual voluntary contributions have ranged between $200 million and $300 million.

House Democrats contended Trump does not have the authority to block the remainder of the assessed contribution from being paid out to the WHO. “President Trump is violating the same spending laws that brought about his impeachment,” said Evan Hollander, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee.

But senior administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue, said the structure of the appropriations law in question allows Trump to spend the remaining $60 million on any international organization, not just the WHO, as long as it is spent by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

The 60- to 90-day review Trump announced will determine where that money goes, the officials said. They said voluntary contributions to the WHO would be stopped entirely and redirected to other international health programs and needs.

With Congress out of session at least through early May, Democrats’ options for responding are limited. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in an interview, “It doesn’t look like we’re coming back into session for a few weeks, but when we do I’m certainly going to pursue language in the next funding bill to restore funding for the World Health Organization.”

In a sign of divisions among Democrats as they scramble to respond to Trump’s move, however, the administration’s legal position was not uniformly disputed by Democrats on Capitol Hill.

One senior Senate Democratic Appropriations aide said the administration’s contention that it does not have to spend the assessed funds on WHO specifically is “probably accurate” because of the way the appropriations account the money comes from is structured.

“It may not be a question of whether they have to provide the funds to WHO but rather what are the consequences of not doing so,” the aide said, noting that these consequences could include being in arrears to the WHO, undermining the WHO’s ability to respond to global health threats including the coronavirus, and weakening U.S. influence in the organization and on global health policy overall.

Democrats and administration officials, along with outside experts, concurred that failing to pay assessed dues to the WHO — in other words, being in arrears — could bring about consequences including the United States losing influence and even voting rights at the World Health Organization.

Whether that would matter to Trump administration officials is less clear.

“We pay into that, and is it so much to ask the minor dividend, the minor return on our investment, would be for the WHO to be honest about the origins of the virus in Wuhan? About the fact that it was human-to-human transmission?” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Wednesday on Fox News Channel.

“They lied about that or weren’t transparent about that. So this is about transparency and accountability because we’ve been so hard hit in this country, and we were listening to the health professionals around the world.”

Anne Gearan contributed to this report.