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Lawmaker links U.N. funding to Palestinian issue

U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida answers reporters' questions during a news conference at the Presidential House in Tegucig
U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida answers reporters' questions during a news conference at the Presidential House in Tegucig

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A senior Republican lawmaker announced on Tuesday she was seeking to cut off U.S. funds to any United Nations organization that embraces an upgrade to the Palestinians' diplomatic status this autumn.

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen included the cutoff clause in legislation that would change U.S. financing of the United Nations so that Washington could choose the programs it wants to fund there, and the ones it does not.

The conservative chairwoman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, who is a staunch supporter of Israel, included the provision opposing Palestinian U.N. membership to try to head off Palestinian plans to seek the world body's endorsement of statehood when the General Assembly convenes next month.

"My bill ... seeks to stop this dangerous scheme in its tracks," she said in a statement.

The United States is the biggest contributor to the U.N. budget under a system of mandatory contributions from member states. Washington pays about 22 percent of the core U.N. budget and 25 percent of its peacekeeping costs.

Ros-Lehtinen, a harsh U.N. critic, has been threatening for months to introduce a bill to move U.S. contributions to a "voluntary" basis. She has done so despite warnings from the Obama administration that it would oppose the measure -- warnings the State Department renewed on Tuesday. The Democratic-run Senate is also unlikely to pass the bill.

Israel rejects the Palestinians' plans as sidestepping peace talks that have been frozen for a year in a dispute over Israel's settlement building.

The United States, like its ally Israel, opposes the idea of full Palestinian membership in the United Nations at the moment and could use Washington's veto power on the Security Council to block it. However, President Barack Obama is hoping to avoid a diplomatic confrontation by restarting Middle East peace talks and persuading Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to back down from his statehood drive at the United Nations.

Another option for the Palestinians is to seek upgraded status -- they are currently U.N. observers -- as a non-member state. This requires approval from two-thirds of the U.N. General Assembly, not the Security Council, and Washington would not be able to veto it.

A Ros-Lehtinen aide said the congresswoman also was worried about an upgraded Palestinian status short of full membership. Her bill would cut off U.S. contributions to any U.N. entity that upgrades the status of the Palestinian mission to the United Nations.

The State Department said it was opposed to Ros-Lehtinen's legislation to revamp U.N. funding because, as spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, it would "seriously undermine our international standing and dangerously weaken the U.N. as an instrument to advance U.S. national security goals."

"We believe in U.N. reform, we just don't think that this is the right way to go about it," Nuland said. The United States called on Monday for the rescinding of a nearly 3 percent cost of living pay increase to almost 5,000 U.N. employees in New York, saying it was inappropriate at a time of austerity.

The United States has a history of being reluctant to pay its U.N. dues. Critics in the United States accuse the world body of having a sometimes corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy.

The criticism has been revived this year by Republicans in the House majority just as lawmakers are looking for ways to reduce the deficit of $1.3 trillion.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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