Republican Senators Seek Accounting of U.S. Aid to WHO

(Bloomberg) -- A dispute over U.S. funding for the World Health Organization is intensifying in Congress as Republicans and Democrats stake out positions on an agency at the center of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Five Republican senators introduced a bill Wednesday that seeks an accounting of how U.S. aid money is spent on the WHO and other multilateral groups. Meanwhile, Democrats in the House are considering issuing a subpoena to the State Department for records related to President Donald Trump’s decision to withhold funding from the organization.

“It is important that the United States knows where our taxpayers’ dollars are going,” lead sponsor Senator Jim Risch said in a statement. “As we have seen most recently with questionable actions taken by the World Health Organization in response to the spread of Covid-19, it is critically important to have accountability and oversight of our assistance.”

Trump has said the WHO took Chinese claims about the virus at “face value,” and he ordered a 60-day freeze of U.S. funding for the organization in April.

Republican Senators Seek Accounting of U.S. Aid to WHO

The legislation “will provide the necessary insight to make informed decisions on how to prioritize our financial contributions,” said Risch of Idaho, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Separately, the State Department missed a Monday deadline to voluntarily provide a House committee with records related to Trump’s decision to withhold funding from the WHO because of its response to the coronavirus crisis.

Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel requested the material in an April 27 letter to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. An official familiar with the chairman’s request said the information wasn’t produced by the Monday deadline and that Engel was considering issuing a subpoena.

Engel, in his letter, described Trump’s move to halt funding to the WHO as a political distraction from the administration’s own response to global pandemic.

Trump Halts U.S. Payments to WHO, Citing Reliance on China

“The WHO is an imperfect organization that is only as functional as its member states empower it to be. It has made mistakes during the course of this unprecedented emergency, and I would support reforms to strengthen the organization,” Engel wrote. “But, certainly, cutting the WHO’s funding while the world confronts the Covid-19 tragedy is not the answer.”

Engel is seeking descriptions of when the suspension will take effect, the precise amount of funding to be withheld, all correspondence between State Department officials and WHO officials regarding the coronavirus, and all documents relating to any fact-finding about the WHO and the coronavirus.

The U.S. has contributed $893 million to the WHO’s operations during its current two-year funding cycle, according to the organization.

The WHO and its director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus have become the focus of the political debate in Washington as Congress considers how to reshape U.S. policy during and after the coronavirus pandemic.

Republicans have been critical of the United Nations agency and its response to the initial stages of the pandemic, accusing it of being too willing to accept assessments of the virus’ impact from the Chinese government. Senator Todd Young, an Indiana Republican and a co-sponsor of the bill, has called for Tedros to appear before his Foreign Relations subcommittee on multilateral institutions.

Democrats say the WHO is a necessary part of an international effort to contain and defeat the virus. They say Republicans’ criticism of the organization is an attempt to deflect blame from the Trump administration’s own response.

Pompeo said Wednesday that China covered up the origins of the virus while easing off earlier claims of “enormous evidence” that the virus escaped from a laboratory there. Pompeo also called for the WHO to grant Taiwan observer status and invite it to attend future World Health Assembly meetings -- a controversial position in Beijing.

The proposed legislation requires a one-time report on U.S. aid to 38 multilateral organizations, including the WHO, the World Bank and several United Nations programs.

In addition to Risch and Young, the bill’s other sponsors are Senators Marco Rubio, David Perdue and Mitt Romney.

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