WASHINGTON - Furious at the ouster of the United States from the United Nations' Human Rights Commission, the House voted yesterday to freeze payment of $244 million in back U.N. dues until the nation is given back its seat.
"We needed and wanted to give our members the opportunity to express their dismay and disgust" with the commission's action, said Rep. Henry J. Hyde, a Republican from Illinois and cosponsor of the measure. "This, we felt, was one of the effective, non-catastrophic ways of making that sentiment."
But opponents, including a wide array of human rights organizations, worried that the move would reinforce the discontent some world leaders feel with what they see as American arrogance and reluctance to play by international rules.
"A superpower pays its bills. A superpower doesn't cry when it fails to get its way, and then go and take all its marbles," argued Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney, Democrat of Georgia, opposing the amendment. The "tit-for-tat mentality ... has the potential of spiraling out of control into absurdity."
President Bush opposes holding up the funds but has not threatened a veto if the measure, approved 252-165, stays in the State Department authorization bill. "That's a few hypotheticals down the road," said Sean McCormick, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Privately, a White House aide said reneging on the U.S. commitment to pay back dues would "undermine our broader interests and our credibility as a negotiating power."
The amendment does not affect a coming payment of $582 million in owed dues, only a later installment of $244 million. A payment of $100 million has already been made to the United Nations under an agreement worked out in 1999.
The measure is expected to face a tougher audience in the evenly divided Senate. While there is strong resentment on Capitol Hill over the ejection of the United States from the 53-member Human Rights panel, some lawmakers warn that failure to make good on the 1999 agreement would exacerbate the nation's image troubles abroad.
The United States lost its seat on the Human Rights Commission last week when it gained fewer votes than three European countries in a secret vote by another U.N. panel, the Economic and Social Council.
Overseas resentment has been growing as the United States spurned an international ban on land mines, did not ratify a treaty it signed establishing an International Criminal Court, and balked at environmental standards developed at a conference in Kyoto, Japan, to combat global warming. The United States failed to pay its U.N. dues for years and currently has no U.N. ambassador.
"When you add up all the unilateralism, people may say, 'to hell with them,'" said Sen. John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "This is a globe - we've got to work with people. It is in our interests to have other countries feel better about us ... not so doubtful about our intentions and our commitment to certain kinds of things."
Many House members said they were stunned and appalled at the expulsion of the United States from the human rights panel, while Sudan and China, two nations frequently cited for human rights abuses, were voted in.
The United States is "the greatest nation in the history of the world," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. "Without this nation's leadership, there would not be a United Nations."
"We're the leader of the free world. That's just the way it is," Hyde said.
The emotional debate on the House floor reflects the dilemma faced by one of the world's wealthiest nations: Should it use the power of its heavy purse to get its way, or would that strategy make matters worse?
Human rights groups sent a letter yesterday urging Congress not to back out of its dues obligations.