Both the Foreign Relations Committee, which Helms chairs, and the full Senate voted without dissent Wednesday to release $582 million in back dues owed the United Nations for its operations and peacekeeping costs.
That's the bulk of the $926 million Congress promised in a 1999 law on condition that the organization reform its huge bureaucracy and reduce the U.S. budgetary burden.
Helms, R-N.C., who last year exchanged well-publicized visits with members of the U.N. Security Council, said Wednesday that while the United Nations had fallen slightly short of the goals he had set, he supported release of the money. "This legislation justifiably used the leverage of the United States to press for reforms, by linking payment of the United States' so-called U.N. arrears to specific U.N. reforms," Helms said.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the top Democrat on Foreign Relations and co-writer with Helms of the 1999 law, praised his conservative partner for insisting on the U.N. changes. "Just as only Nixon could go to China, only Helms could fix the U.N.," Biden said.
The 99-0 Senate vote sends the bill to the House, which has not scheduled a date for action. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, did not vote.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, the chief U.N. financial officer, Undersecretary-General for Management Joseph Connor, promised that the money will go to satisfy the organization's debts to countries that have participated in peacekeeping.
"We are delighted that the large arrearage package contemplated in the Helms-Biden bill has now come a step closer to the transfer of cash," Connor said. "We will use every cent to pay down our obligation to some 70 member states who have contributed troops and equipment to U.N. peacekeeping missions over a long number of years."
The United States paid the first $100 million of the $926 million total in December 1999, a step needed to keep its voting privileges in the U.N. General Assembly. The third installment of $244 million would come next year if the United Nations follows through on pledges to clean up what Helms called its bloated bureaucracy.
Wednesday's vote, the Senate's first legislative action of the new Congress, came after the General Assembly concluded lengthy negotiations last December with agreement that the U.S. share of the operating budget would drop from 25 percent to 22 percent and its share of the peacekeeping budget would be reduced gradually from 31 percent to 26.5 percent in 2003.
Key to reaching the deal was a one-time gift of $34 million offered by American media tycoon Ted Turner to cover the shortfall in the main U.N. budget created by the reduced U.S. conribution in 2001.
The vote on the $582 million was required because the Helms-Biden measure of 1999 conditioned release of funds to the United States paying no more than 25 percent of the peacekeeping budget, slightly less than what the U.N. agreed to.
That 25 percent cap was first set in 1994 and several members of the Foreign Relations Committee said Congress should act soon to lift that ceiling. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said most of the peacekeeping budget goes to U.S. allies who, with the United States reluctant to contribute troops to peacekeeping missions, are shouldering much of the manpower burden.
The United Nations contends that, even with payment of the $926 million, the United States would still be in arrears by some $500 million because it has not fulfilled its obligation to pay 31 percent of peacekeeping costs. Congressional agreement to that argument is unlikely.