UNITED NATIONS — After drawing a rebuke from the White House, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tried Thursday to smooth over his characterization of the U.S. as a "deadbeat" for its late payments to the world body.
"My point was simply that the United Nations needs the fullest support of its members, and never more so than in these very demanding times," Ban told reporters at U.N. headquarters
The White House objected to Ban's use of the word "deadbeat" to describe the U.S. during a private meeting Wednesday with lawmakers at the Capitol, a day after he met with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Ban's "word choice was unfortunate," given that the U.S. is the largest contributor to the United Nations.
The United States pays 22 percent of the organization's nearly $5 billion operating budget but is perennially late paying its dues.
Asked whether Ban should retract his comment, Gibbs said some recognition by Ban of the U.S. role would be appropriate.
"I think given the contribution that the American taxpayer makes, I do think it would be appropriate to acknowledge that role," Gibbs told reporters at his daily briefing.
Ban visited the White House at Obama's invitation Tuesday, then made the rounds Wednesday on Capitol Hill seeking to improve relations between the United Nations and the U.S.
On Thursday, Ban called his choice of words a "misunderstanding."
"I noted how generous the United States has been in supporting the U.N., both in terms of assessed and voluntary contributions. At the same time, I noted that the United States is also the largest debtor, owing more than $1 billion in arrears, soon to reach $1.6 billion," he said.
The U.S. is behind on its payments partly because its budget runs on a different calendar than the U.N.'s, but also because Congress and previous U.S. administrations have withheld funding to try to push through U.N. reforms or because of other ideological disputes.
Obama has pledged to fix that.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Relations Committee, said she took "great umbrage" at Ban's use of the word "deadbeat."
Mark Kornblau, a spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, said that "those are not the words we would have chosen to encourage Congress to address this problem."
Ban drew muted support from his meetings in Congress, where members privately described him as dedicated, thoughtful and serious but generating little excitement. Some of the House and Senate leaders who met with Ban agreed with his assessment of the United States' late payments.
"Clearly they have an interest in the United States meeting its responsibility. In terms of peacekeeping, we're about $670 million behind, and I think the argument is well-stated," said Rep. Bill Delahunt, a Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee.
Ban also met with Democratic Rep. Ed Markey, who heads a House global warming panel, and Sen. John Kerry, the Senate Foreign Relations chairman.
"Around the world, the United Nations is underfunded and overtasked," Kerry said, standing beside Ban and Republican Sen. Richard Lugar.
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