In a test of wills between President Clinton and the Republican Congress that threatens to torpedo U.S. leadership of the United Nations, lawmakers passed legislation Tuesday that almost certainly dooms Washington's effort to pay its back dues to the world organization.
The Senate passed and sent to the White House a bill that contains almost $1-billion to start paying Washington's overdue U.N. assessments. But the legislation includes an unrelated anti-abortion provision, attached by House Republicans, which Clinton immediately announced he would veto _ scuttling the entire measure.
Senate Republican leaders said that if the bill is vetoed, Congress will not schedule another vote on the matter this year. Under U.N. rules, if the United States does not reduce its debt by the end of this year, Washington will be vulnerable to losing its vote in the General Assembly. The dues have been delinquent since the Reagan administration.
Speaking at a White House Rose Garden ceremony, Clinton heaped scorn on the Republicans, accusing them of telling the world that "different rules apply to us and we have a right not to pay our way. . . . I don't think that is a responsible, mature message to send to the world by the leading country in the world."
But Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Clinton "has waved that veto flag time after time. But he should realize that this is it. If he vetoes this bill there will be no further action." Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., agreed: "This is it. Everybody needs to understand that."
The measure the Senate approved and sent to the White House was drafted by a Senate-House conference committee after the two chambers approved slightly different versions last year. The House approved it earlier. Under congressional rules, the final conference committee bill cannot be amended at this stage of the legislative process.
The measure was approved 51-49, as all but two of the 45 Senate Democrats, joined by six Republicans, voted against the bill to try to send it back to the conference committee to be rewritten.
Besides the U.N. dues, the bill reorganizes the U.S. foreign policy agencies, merging the Agency for International Development, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and U.S. Information Agency into the State Department.
From the White House point of view, the poison pill here is a provision prohibiting U.S. aid to private groups that lobby governments to change their policies on abortion _ even if no U.S. money is used for the lobbying. Although existing legislation prohibits use of U.S. funds for any activity promoting abortion, private groups are permitted to use money obtained from other sources for lobbying in other countries.
Administration officials call the provision an unacceptable "gag rule" on overseas private groups. They accuse Republican abortion foes of "legislative blackmail" for including the abortion provision in a bill high on the administration's foreign policy priority list.
But Republicans insist Clinton easily could win approval for the U.N. dues money and other elements of the bill important to him by agreeing to the abortion provision. "If Clinton vetoes it, we will redirect all complaints from the U.N. to the White House," said Marc Thiessen, a spokesman for Helms. "Apparently the administration is prepared to sacrifice its top foreign policy priority to a small group of abortion advocates."
Although U.N. rules say the United States could lose its General Assembly vote over its arrears, it seems unlikely the world body would go that far. The United Nations has overlooked back dues by major countries. For instance, it let the old Soviet Union keep its vote despite a dues boycott it waged early in the Cold War.