WASHINGTON—U.S. House pro-lifers are disagreeing on a key question touching on overseas abortions: Should the United Nations be forced to reform before it gets paid?

The House on Aug. 5 rejected an amendment by Ohio Democrat Tony Hall, to pay $244 million in back dues to the United Nations before Congress addresses U.S. funding of international abortion promoters.

New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, chairman of the House Pro-Life Caucus, is against the U.S. funding of abortion groups overseas. He is leading a battle with the Clinton administration over whether to first pay the back dues, or arrears, with no strings attached or to seek certain U.N. reforms first.

The defeat of Hall's amendment by a vote of 221-206 will force Clinton to decide what is more important: maintaining the U.S. vote in the U.N. General Assembly, or funding abortion programs abroad.

“This signifies very clearly that if he [Clinton] wants to pay U.N. dues, he's going to accept reform,” Christian Polking, press secretary for Smith, told the Register.

The president consistently has vetoed any bill with pro-life language in it. “The only time he [Clinton] signs anything pro-life is when it has something he wants more in it,” said Polking. Pro-lifers need to stop the “abortion crusade” overseas, he added, and “hone in on groups [who are] manipulating governments.”

Last October, Clinton vetoed a bill that would have paid nearly $1 billion in dues to the United Nations. In his veto message, Clinton said that “the Congress has included in this legislation, unacceptable restrictions on international family planning programs and other international organizations.” The latter included Planned Parenthood International and the U.N. Population Control Fund.

In the past, Hall, a member of the House Pro-Life Caucus, supported not paying the back dues, aide Deborah DeYoung told the Register. She said that he thought it worked then, but he now thinks the United States should simply pay the arrears so it doesn't lose its vote.

Hurts the Cause

Polking acknowledged Hall as a “good” pro-lifer but said that “Hall's amendment hurts the cause.” The victory is “reassuring for us,” Polking added. “We want to make sure that reforms go through.”

Hall and his supporters have a decidedly different strategy on the issue than Smith. “We're undercutting the U.N. which prevents their job of peace-keeping and saving children,” said DeYoung.

But Douglas Johnson, legislative director for National Right to Life Committee, said it is more important to “curb egregious aspects of pro-abortion activities overseas” than to pay the U.N. dues. He added, “We opposed the amendment and welcomed its defeat.”

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops also agreed with Smith that U.N. payments should be halted until the reforms are made. “We don't think Congress should budge,” said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the conference's Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.

“We are in favor of paying the U.N. dues, but we wouldn't want to create an effort to circumvent Smith's goals [of U.N. reforms],” Doerflinger added. “We generally support the U.N. as an institution, that does not include support for the U.N. Population Control Fund.”

Most House members favor staying in the United Nations, though each year about 75 members vote in favor of the United States leaving the international body.

On not paying the dues, Hall in a press release said, “This strategy is failing to achieve the goal of changing U.S. abortion policy—goals I share as a member of the Pro-Life Caucus. But it is undercutting the development work that is central to the United Nations' mission—work that is a proven way of reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions.”

Kentucky Republican Harold Rogers, a leader in U.N. reform, said on the House floor “the only leverage we have to ensure that these reforms take place is by making them a condition of arrearage payments.”

U.N.'s Biggest Deadbeat

As Hall opened the debate on the House floor, he said, “When we link abortion with U.N. arrears we take a moral issue and we twist it to serve other purposes. I find it embarrassing that the world's only superpower is the U.N.'s biggest deadbeat.”

Smith argued that the United States pays a disproportionally high amount for U.N. peace-keeping missions and other expenses. “This talk about the U.S. being a deadbeat is absurd,” Smith said. “We pay more than our fair share.”

Smith said the United States last year paid $1.5 billion to the United Nations, $300 million of which was voluntary.

The United States loses its vote in the U.N. General Assembly if, after the beginning of a year, the debt is the same or larger than the previous year. “This is historic,” according to Hall's aide, DeYoung. “It's the furthest in the hole we've been.”

New measures demanding reform before payment will likely surface in the House in the coming months. Whether Clinton will sign any of them into law remains to be seen.

John Drogin writes from Washington, D.C.