WASHINGTON- One day after a nation-wide poll found strong popular support for the United Nations, Republicans on a key Congressional foreign policy committee Thursday voted to cut U.S. funding for the world body if it did not implement major changes.
The Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives voted 23-15 for the United Nations Transparency, Accountability and Reform Act.
It would require Washington, among other provisions, to cut 50 percent of funding for the U.N. unless it converted to a voluntary contribution system permitting Washington to fund only those agencies and programmes "that advance U.S. interests and values".
The bill would also require Washington to quit the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC); withhold contributions to any U.N. agency or programme that upgrades the current "observer" status of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO); and end U.S. contributions to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the U.N. body charged with aiding Palestinian refugees since 1949.
The bill's future is uncertain. A vote on the floor of the Republican-controlled House has not yet been scheduled. Even if it passed there, it is unlikely to be approved by the Senate, where Democrats are in the majority, and if in the unlikely event that it passed both houses, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she would press President Barack Obama to veto it.
"This bill mandates actions that would severely limit the United States' participation in the United Nations, damaging longstanding treaty commitments under the United Nations Charter and gravely harming U.S. national interests, those of our allies, and the security of Americans at home and abroad," Clinton warned in a letter to the Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman and the bill's chief sponsor, Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Wednesday, as well as the committee's ranking Democrat, California Representative Howard Berman.
Despite its uncertain future, a number of analysts say it requires attention. "Even though this bill will likely not become law this year, it has to be taken seriously now because it sets the Republican agenda," said Don Kraus, CEO of Citizens for Global Solutions (CGS), a national grassroots group.
"It could well reappear in 2013, when control of Congress and the White House may change and enactment of this bill will be more likely," he added.
The bill is one part of a multi-pronged assault by Republicans on the U.N. and some of its specialised agencies.
Just last week, for example, the Foreign Affairs Committee approved a measure to ban U.S. funding next year for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), which the Republican right has long accused of promoting abortion and China's strict birth-control policies.
The ban will likely have to be reconciled with the Senate's approval of 40 million dollars for the agency in a general appropriations bill.
In August, a key Republican-led House appropriations committee sliced a total of 600 million dollars from the administration's 2012 request of 3.5 billion dollars for the U.N. and its peacekeeping operations. It also zeroed out U.S. contributions to UNHRC.
In addition, Republican lawmakers are pressing the Obama administration to oppose U.N. plans to build a new office building at Turtle Bay in New York.
Since the U.N.'s founding in the last days of World War II, the U.S. has been its single biggest contributor. Washington currently funds 22 percent of the U.N.'s regular budget and some 27 percent of its peacekeeping budget. The U.N.'s total budget this year is 22.3 billion dollars, of which Washington has paid 6.4 billion dollars.
Opinion polls have shown substantial public support for the world body over many decades.
On the eve of Thursday's committee vote, a new survey of 900 registered voters released by the Better World Campaign found that nearly nine in ten (86 percent) said it was important that the U.S. maintain an active role within the U.N.
About two out of three said Washington should pay its dues to the U.N. (64 percent) and to U.N. peacekeeping operations on time and in full. It found that majorities of Republicans, as well as Democrats and independents, agreed with all three propositions.
Asked about legislation that would cut U.S. funding to the U.N., respondents in the survey, which was co-conducted by a Democratic and a Republican polling firm, found significant partisan differences. While 67 percent of Democrats said they would oppose cuts, Republicans and independents were more evenly split.
Half of Republicans said they would support such cuts, while 44 percent said they would oppose them. Among independents, 41 percent said they would support cuts, while a 51 percent majority opposed them.
"This polling once again shows that Americans do not want to see the United States go back into debt at the United Nations," said Timothy Wirth, a former senator and current president of the U.N. Foundation.
"While misguided legislation in Congress would cause America to forfeit our leadership at the U.N., we see time and time again that the majority of voters across the political spectrum believe the U.S. should have an active role within the U.N.," he added.
Last week, a group of 30 formerly top-ranking U.S. diplomats, military officers, and lawmakers – both Democrats and Republicans – also released a strong statement in support of the U.N. and in thinly veiled opposition to the pending bill.
"No doubt, U.S. contributions to the U.N. must be judicious and prudent: accountability, transparency and effectiveness for any organisation, including the U.N.," declared the letter, which was signed by a number of top Republicans, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Defence Secretary William Cohen, and half a dozen former senior Republican senators.
"At the same time, our ability to burden share with other nations helps defray costs, promote stability, and enhance the impact of our resources. Withholding U.S. funding weakens both our influence and support for our national priorities, while strengthening the hands of our adversaries," they warned.
But Ros-Lehtinen pressed ahead with her bill, introducing it with a litany of complaints about pending U.N. budget increases, its alleged anti-Israel bias and lack of transparency.
"We will never achieve lasting, sweeping reforms if the U.S. keeps paying in full what the U.N. dictates to us, with no consequences for the U.N.'s failures," she declared, noting that the main thrust of the bill would be to force the world body to shift 80 percent of its funding basis from mandatory dues to voluntary contributions within two years.
Failure to meet that deadline, according to the bill, would result in the U.S. withholding half of its annual contribution and continuing to do so until the 80 percent mark is achieved.
The bill would also impose new reporting requirements by the U.N. to ensure, among other things, that U.S. contributions are used "for the specific purposes for which (they were) made available by Congress".