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House passes U.N. ultimatum to restructure

WASHINGTON—Defying President Bush, the House of Representatives voted Friday to cut U.S. dues to the United Nations in half if the international organization doesn't go along with a sweeping overhaul that the House dictates in the legislation.

The House rejected another U.N.-overhaul proposal the White House preferred, which would have given Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice the authority to reduce U.S. dues if she chose. The United Nations receives $442 million a year from the United States, the largest contributor; that's about 22 percent of the world body's annual budget.

The 221-184 vote underscored long-standing Republican antipathy toward the United Nations, which has been inflamed further by allegations of financial improprieties in the organization's oil-for-food program with Iraq.

Even so, the Bush administration argued against automatically cutting off dues, saying that would violate the president's constitutional authority to conduct foreign policy.

Friday's vote was the second time this week that the House, heretofore a bulwark of support for Bush, disregarded his wishes on a major piece of legislation.

On Wednesday, it voted to weaken the Patriot Act by curtailing the FBI's power to seize library and bookstore records, despite Bush's insistence that such authority is needed to fight the war on terrorism.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, framed the issue bluntly Friday.

"The pervasive corruption at the U.N. is not a problem; it is a crisis," DeLay said. "We shouldn't be asking the U.N.'s leaders to make these reforms; we need to tell them. The American people are today underwriting rampant corruption—22 percent of it, to be precise—and it needs to stop."

Others defended the international organization.

"Scandal does not define the United Nations," said Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, one of seven Republicans who voted against the bill. "The world would be a far worse place without the U.N. ... The activities of its various organizations and agencies have made this a better, better world society. Improvement, not destruction, is the goal."

The Senate has yet to act on a similar bill. Given Bush's stance and the Senate's greater foreign-policy orientation, the final legislation is unlikely to be as strict as the House bill.

The House measure, written by International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., would require the United Nations to set up an independent oversight board and an independent ethics office.

Middle- and high-ranking U.N. officials would have to file financial-disclosure statements. Peacekeepers would have to abide by a code of conduct.

The United Nations would be prohibited from abolishing so-called "name-and-shame" resolutions, aimed at pressuring countries that violate human-rights standards.

All told, the House bill identified 46 changes that the United Nations must undertake by October 2008 to avoid a cut in U.S. dues.

The legislation doesn't affect the amount of money the United States pays for U.N. peacekeeping, about $1.2 billion this year. But it does seek to limit the number of peacekeeping missions.

After the House vote, the United Nations issued a statement saying that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan "does not feel that withholding dues is a productive route to achieving reform and indeed that it could jeopardize the outcome" of a "reform summit" by heads of state in September.

On Thursday, Annan had rejected Congress' unilateral approach, noting the United Nations works on the basis of broad agreements involving all member states.

"If the U.S. has proposals, they should put it on the table and discuss it with the others," he said.

Critics of the bill included a bipartisan group of former U.N. ambassadors, including Jeane Kirkpatrick and John Danforth.

The dispute over U.N. restructuring comes as Bush is struggling with Senate Democrats to win confirmation for his nominee for U.N. ambassador, John Bolton. A Senate vote on Bolton is scheduled for Monday.

The House legislation wouldn't affect U.N.-related programs that are financed through voluntary contributions from member countries, such as UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The United States contributes nearly $9 billion toward those functions.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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