WASHINGTON - The Republican-controlled House defied the White House yesterday, passing legislation that would automatically cut U.S. dues to the United Nations by half unless the world body completes a lengthy list of sweeping changes within a specified time.
The measure passed by a vote of 221-184, with 28 members not voting.
The act faces uncertain prospects in the Senate, where no companion bill has been introduced.
But House supporters said they believed the tough bill would give them leverage to negotiate some sort of reform package with the White House and Senate by the end of the year.
The House acted despite strong objections from the White House. In a statement issued earlier in the week, the administration warned that the measure would undercut its own effort to reform the United Nations and would infringe on the president's authority to conduct foreign policy.
The setback for the White House came just days before the Senate is scheduled to vote on the nomination of John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. Democrats have held up Bolton's nomination for weeks, saying the hard-line envoy is the wrong man for the job.
However, the White House has championed Bolton as a tough-talking diplomat who will spearhead its efforts to overhaul the international organization. The Senate plans to vote on Bolton's nomination Monday night.
Although many House Republicans support Bolton's nomination and the White House's efforts to change the way the United Nations operates, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, sponsor of the House act, said the chamber believed those efforts needed to be strengthened and speeded up.
Setting deadlines for specific changes and threatening to withhold dues offered the only real hope, Hyde said, of forcing fundamental change at the United Nations.
"We say we have had enough waivers, enough resolutions, enough statements," Hyde said. "It's time we had some teeth in reform."
Republican willingness to defy the president, some Congressional observers said, also reflected the changing dynamics between the House Republican majority and a president who is in his final term and whose popularity, according to recent polls, is waning.
Unlike President Bush, said a senior aide to a Republican who opposed the act, lawmakers face re-election, and criticism of the United Nations "plays well with the base." Congressional anger at the United Nations has been mounting since the Security Council refused to authorize the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
It has been fueled by revelations made by Hyde's own committee this year about corruption in the U.N.-administered Iraq Oil-For-Food program, launched in 1996 to allow Iraq to sell oil for food and humanitarian supplies.
Both supporters and critics of the House legislation pointed out that they agreed the United Nations needs immediate, fundamental restructuring - they only disagreed on how best to achieve it.
During the two-day debate on the measure, dozens of members from both parties castigated the United Nations for what they said was a record of corruption, inefficiency and anti-Americanism.
"We all know what corruption looks like, acts like and smells like. We've all seen corruption in the U.N.," said Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican.
The original legislation called for the United Nations to enact 39 specific reforms by 2008, or face a 50 percent cut in U.S. dues. The United States this year will pay about $442 million in dues, which represents about 22 percent of the U.N. operating budget.
Amendments added seven reform requirements that must be met by that deadline.
The measure would force the United Nations to cut some programs, overhaul its peacekeeping operations, change its budget priorities, strengthen its oversight and ethics processes and hold fewer conferences. It would give the body no more than three years to make all the specified reforms.
Among the dozens of changes demanded in the act are a requirement that any new U.N. programs would have sunset provisions and a requirement that the U.N. budget, once adopted, could not be increased without "consensus agreement" by the member states, and then by no more than 10 percent.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.