The House on Wednesday rejected a Republican-led effort to force the United Nations to give back $179 million in overpayments, falling short in the face of Obama administration arguments that much of the money already had been designated to boost security around an international headquarters susceptible to terrorist attack.
The vote was 259-169, short of the two-thirds necessary for the bill to pass. It was the third straight embarrassment for the new House Republican leadership, which lost votes on the Patriot Act extension Tuesday night and was forced to pull a trade bill or suffer defeat.
Determined to cut spending, Republicans had pushed for the legislation that would recoup $179 million from the U.N. Tax Equalization Fund, which was established to pay American employees of the U.N. who have to pay taxes when their foreign counterparts do not. The measure also would have required the Unites States to withhold an equivalent amount from future U.N. dues if the money were not repaid.
The State Department said the money simply cannot be returned, as $100 million had been set aside for the New York City police department to upgrade security around the building.
"This train is already rolling down the tracks in providing the security on the United Nations," Esther Brimmer, assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, said in an interview.
'Disaster waiting to happen'
One Republican argued that it wasn't a budget issue but rather a matter of national security in New York, a target in the deadly Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack that toppled the two World Trade Center towers. Rep. Peter King of New York, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said the issue affected the safety of New Yorkers and the thousands of tourists who visit the landmark building.
"The fact is this is a disaster waiting to happen," said King, who broke with his Republican colleagues in opposing the bill. So did another New York Republican, freshman Rep. Michael Grimm.
Asked Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat, "Why do this? Only a radical, wild-eyed obsession with taking a pound of flesh out of the U.N. — which at times deserves it — and to do so no matter what the cost to our national security."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the measure was necessary because the U.N. had collected more from the United States than it had paid out and American taxpayers should get their money back.
"This is not about security," said Ros-Lehtinen, who argued that the U.N. and the administration were looking for another excuse to avoid making tough choices.
Ros-Lehtinen has been a critic of the United Nations and has sponsored legislation to make U.S. payment of its dues largely voluntary.
Rep. Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the Congressional Budget Office, the non-partisan scorekeepers, had said the return of the money would have no effect on the federal budget.
"We're not saving money, were spurning an important security request and we're going back into a pattern of arrearages that undermines our role," Berman said.
At the United Nations, spokesman Martin Nesirky declined to comment on the House vote. He noted that the United States was obliged to provide security as host country of U.N. headquarters, but said ultimately it was up to the U.S. to decide how to spend the money in the fund.