Some U.S. lawmakers demanded an immediate cutoff of U.S. funds to UNESCO on Monday after the U.N. cultural agency voted to grant the Palestinians full membership.
The Obama administration said the UNESCO vote was a distraction from the quest for Middle East peace.
Today's vote distracts us from our shared goal of direct negotiations that result in a secure Israel and an independent Palestine living side by side in peace and security, said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
The White House, in its initial response to the vote, did not address the question of whether U.S. funding for UNESCO would continue.
But Republicans in Congress said Washington had no choice under laws passed in the 1990s, and must now stop contributions to UNESCO. An important congressional Democrat, Representative Nita Lowey of New York, warned the U.N. cultural agency's action would have serious consequences.
The United States provides 22 percent of the agency's funding.
Existing U.S. law mandates that we cut off funding to any U.N. body that approves such a request. The administration must stop trying to find ways not to fully implement this law, and instead cut off funding to UNESCO immediately, said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
I expect the administration to enforce existing law and stop contributions to UNESCO and any other U.N. agency that enables the Palestinians to short-cut the peace process, said Representative Kay Granger, the Republican chairwoman of the House committee in charge of foreign aid.
The United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organisation decided on Monday to give the Palestinians full membership, a vote that will boost their bid for recognition as a state at the United Nations.
UNESCO is the first U.N. agency the Palestinians have joined as a full member since President Mahmoud Abbas applied for full membership of the United Nations on September 23.
The Palestinian campaign for recognition at the United Nations is strongly opposed by many in Washington, a strong ally of Israel. U.S. officials argue that the effort interferes with prospects for direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said the vote to grant Palestinians full membership was deeply damaging to the U.N. cultural agency and no substitute for direct peace talks with Israel.
The American Jewish group J Street called on Congress to amend U.S. law to preserve American contributions to UNESCO, saying without U.S. support, the group's work in development and expanding educational opportunities around the globe would be at risk.
If Congress does not act, we could soon find ourselves without a voice at U.N.-affiliated agencies of vital importance to American jobs, safety and security, said Dylan Williams, the organization's director of government affairs.
He said the laws that operate to restrict U.S. contributions to UNESCO would also prohibit American funding for any U.N. organisation which grants Palestinians full membership status, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
(Additional reporting by Debbie Charles and Andrew Quinn; Editing by Doina Chiacu)