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House Approves U.N. Payment: Legislation Would Provide $582 Million for Back Dues

By Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post, Tuesday 25 September 2001; Page A01

The House yesterday unanimously approved legislation that would provide $582 million to pay back dues to the United Nations, a reflection of how the political landscape has been altered by the terrorist attacks two weeks ago.

For months, conservatives such as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) had blocked the payment of U.N. arrears, but those lawmakers abandoned their opposition in light of the strikes in New York and Washington.

During a brief floor debate yesterday afternoon followed by a voice vote, both Republicans and Democrats said the United States cannot afford to ignore the U.N.’s needs at a time when Bush administration officials are seeking a broad international coalition to combat terrorism. White House officials have lobbied behind the scenes for the money since the attacks.

We’re not going to deny the president the flexibility he needs in conducting foreign policy, DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella said.

Although the measure does not wipe out the United States’ entire U.N. debt—the nation owes $862 million to the international body—it represents a significant step forward in what has been a contentious legislative process. The Senate approved the payment in February, and the bill is headed to the president’s desk.

Yesterday’s action reflects the changed political reality facing both parties on Capitol Hill. Last week, to avoid holding up the defense authorization bill, Senate Democrats agreed to drop a controversial provision that would have impeded the Bush administration’s ability to conduct tests on missile defense. Yesterday, the Senate also approved a free-trade agreement with Jordan, with Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) citing the current crisis in explaining why he was dropping his opposition.

DeLay, who has been negotiating with White House officials for several weeks, announced two days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that he would support the president’s U.N. request.

DeLay and other conservatives wanted to link the release of U.N. funds to an amendment exempting American soldiers from the jurisdiction of an international war crimes court and barring U.S. military aid to countries that had ratified the treaty creating the international court.

As part of the negotiations leading up to the House action, the White House promised in the future to consider legislative language addressing those concerns. No one spoke in opposition to the bill during yesterday’s debate, which lasted about 10 minutes.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) noted that although the bill was being considered under a procedure usually reserved for noncontroversial measures requiring a two-thirds vote for passage, it is one of the most important foreign policy decisions Congress will make this year.

At the same time the administration is reaching out to nations from every corner of the globe, the United States remains the biggest debtor nation at U.N., he added. This is not only unacceptable, it is an impediment to our diplomatic efforts and clearly endangers our national security.

Rep. Tom Lantos (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, suggested paying the back dues would give the administration added diplomatic leverage in the coming months.

As President Bush, Secretary [of State Colin L.] Powell and our nation’s diplomatic corps begin to secure the concrete commitments required to wage this battle against terrorism, they must take advantage of every forum available to reach out to the nations of the world, Lantos said.

The measure would help implement an agreement brokered by former U.N. ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke in December. Under that deal, the United States would be responsible for paying only 22 percent—rather than 25 percent—of the U.N.’s operating fund and would gradually reduce its contribution to the U.N.’s peacekeeping fund from 31 percent to 25 percent. The $582 million payment would be the second of three installments the United States has pledged to make as part of the accord.

Administration officials had argued even before the attacks that they needed a quick vote on U.N. dues because Bush was scheduled to speak this week at the opening of the General Assembly’s fall session. That meeting was postponed after the terrorist strike.