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U.S.: Congress, White House Struggle Over UN Back Pay

Congressional and White House negotiators are trying to resolve remaining federal budget disputes early this week. A major disagreement yet to be settled includes payment of back dues to the United Nations. As RFE/RL senior correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports from Washington, the issue is likely to be the last one resolved in the appropriations process.

Washington, 15 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is two years behind in paying back dues to the United Nations and could lose its right to vote in the General Assembly unless a significant payment is made soon.

U.S. President Bill Clinton has asked Congress for nearly $1 billion to pay a large portion of the UN debt. But Republican leaders in Congress, whose party controls both the House and the Senate, want to condition payment of dues on abortion restrictions for aid to international family planning groups.

Clinton last month refused to sign legislation coupling U.S. payment to the UN to anti-abortion language. Negotiations are continuing to resolve the issue. But with Congress wanting to adjourn this week for the rest of the year, time is running out. Payment is due by the end of this year.

U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin says the stakes are great.

"One of the key priorities for the year 2000 budget has been to pay our arrears to the United Nations and other international organizations. Our failure to do so yet again this year would damage our national security and further erode America's leadership and prestige. It would also lead to the embarrassing loss of the United States right to vote in the UN General Assembly."

Loss of the General Assembly vote would be more symbolic than practical as the United States would still retain its veto rights at the Security Council. According to the UN Charter the U.S. helped to write, any nation that fails to pay its dues for a prolonged period automatically loses its vote in the Assembly.

Other nations that also have failed to keep their monetary commitment to the UN include Bosnia, Georgia, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and rump Yugoslavia.

While urging Congress to pay the UN bill, Clinton took a conciliatory note last week in discussing with reporters key elements of his budget request.

"I think we're making good progress. We still have -- we made some real progress in putting 50,000 more police on our streets. We're making some progress in other areas. We still have to resolve our nation's commitment to 100,000 teachers. We're still working on the United Nations arrears and a number of other environmental issues. But I think we're making good progress and I'm hopeful."

Indeed, since Clinton spoke, agreement has been made on allocating money for additional teachers in America's classrooms and spending additional funds on police officers. Still, no deal has been put on the table on the UN controversy.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has urged lawmakers to set aside their differences on the abortion issue, pay the debt and take their fight to a different arena.

Congress could do three things: refuse to allocate any money, pay part of the bill -- that could avoid the loss of U.S. voting rights -- or pay up in full.

James Lindsay, a senior fellow at the private Brookings Institute, summed up the dilemma this way in an interview with RFE/RL.

"Whether we get a big deal, that sort of solves the problem ... or we simply get enough to help us limp along and avoid losing our vote, that you're going to have a lot of people at the United Nations who are very upset with the United States, very unhappy and very bitter toward the United States. And it's going to make Mr. Holbrooke's life very, very difficult."

House Republican Leader Dick Armey of Texas says many of his fellow lawmakers are serious about the anti-abortion issue.

Says Armey: "It is what I call an issue of the heart."

Armey says issues like that have a commanding influence over votes.

(NCA's Brent McCann contributed to this report by interviewing Brookings' James Lindsay.)