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House Votes to Cut U.S. Funds to United Nations

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

A bill that would slash US funding for the United Nations by half unless the UN follows a series of prescriptions was approved today in the House of Representatives. The vote was 221-to-184, largely along party lines. Republicans backed the measure despite opposition from the Bush administration. Sponsors recited a litany of scandals that have plagued the world body and said that financial threats were the only way to bring change. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

Congressional critics of the UN have had plenty of ammunition in recent years. The UN oil-for-food program allowed Saddam Hussein to siphon off billions of dollars, and kickbacks reached the highest levels of the UN itself. UN peacekeepers have been charged with rape and other sexual misconduct. The body's Human Rights Commission has included members from countries such as Cuba and Sudan. Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told her fellow members that change is overdue.

Representative ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (Republican, Florida): How can the United Nations be considered a legitimate source of stability or an instrument for the protection of the most vulnerable populations, or a tool for the promotion of human rights and good governance when it is plagued with graft and corruption?

NAYLOR: The measure authored by Illinois Republican Henry Hyde calls on the UN to make 39 structural changes ranging from stringent financial and budget oversight to requiring that members of the Commission on Human Rights comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. All must be carried out by October 2007. If not, the assessed US dues, some $438 million this year, would be cut in half. Indiana Republican Dan Burton.

Representative DAN BURTON (Republican, Indiana): This body needs to put the hammer by using American taxpayers' dollars on the UN to clean up that mess over there. We cannot go on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year letting this thing be completely out of hand.

NAYLOR: Opponents said it was the efforts of the US House that were out of hand. California Democrat Tom Lantos said forcing the UN to comply with the House's 39 rules of good behavior was unrealistic.

Representative TOM LANTOS (Democrat, California): Madame Speaker, the good Lord gave us Ten Commandments. The legislation before the House today gives us 39. The United Nations Reform Act is truly a guillotine on autopilot.

NAYLOR: Lantos sponsored an alternative that would have demanded similar reforms, but left it to the secretary of State to determine if financial sanctions should be imposed. Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays, who co-sponsored the alternative, argued this was hardly the time to be threatening to withhold US funding from the UN.

Representative CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (Republican, Connecticut): I can't believe when our men and women are fighting in Iraq that we would move forward with legislation like this when we need to draw countries together.

NAYLOR: But Hyde, his voice weakened by infirmity, argued that its dues are the best leverage the US has over the UN.

Representative HENRY HYDE (Republican, Illinois): We have a duty to the taxpayer first to ensure that there is good stewardship of their dollars. We have to hold the UN accountable.

NAYLOR: The Lantos-Shays alternative lost in a mostly party-line tally, getting just 190 votes.

The Bush administration opposes the Hyde bill, saying it could undermine its own attempts to reform the UN. In addition, eight former ambassadors to the UN wrote a letter to House leaders saying while reforming the United Nations is the right goal, withholding US dues to the UN is the wrong methodology.

It's not clear what happens to the Hyde bill now. There is no companion measure in the Senate. House leaders could try to incorporate the bill into other legislation, but there may be less appetite in the Senate for the kind of strong medicine the House wants to prescribe. Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.