Helms Holds State Dept. Hostage In Funding Fight Blocks Envoy Appointments, Progress On Key Treaties

After two months of pressure tactics intended to force the Clinton administration to revamp its foreign policy bureaucracy, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., has dug in, vowing to continue to hold up all ambassadorial appointments until he is taken more seriously.

As part of his campaign, Helms has halted business meetings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, frozen 400 State Department promotions and blocked more than a dozen treaties and other international agreements, including the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, so they cannot be voted on by the full Senate.

As a result, 30 ambassadorial nominees and one assistant secretary of state are awaiting confirmation, about 15 percent of U.S. embassies around the world have been left without new ambassadors and the day-to-day foreign policy business on Capitol Hill has ground to a halt.

All this is being done to make an unrelated point: that the independent agencies that handle arms control, foreign aid and information be eradicated and swallowed up by the State Department, a move that Helms asserts will save taxpayers $3 billion over four years.

Helms acknowledges with pride that he has seized hostages as the only way to get the administration’s attention.

“These people are playing hardball and dirty pool at the same time, and I’m not going to cave in,” he said in an interview. “But all the president has got to do is say, ‘Senator, let’s talk,’ and we’ll talk. It’ll end on the day the president says we’ll make a deal and we bust up that little fairyland.”

From the administration’s point of view, the senator should have been satisfied with a meeting he had with Clinton last month, and he is undermining the president’s ability to make and execute foreign policy.

“The situation is creating management and morale problems that interfere with the conduct of diplomacy,” Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in an interview. “Our problems around the world are difficult enough as it is without the extra burden of not having our personnel in place.”

The impasse has become even more serious, Christopher added, with the nomination on Friday of James Sasser, the former Democratic senator from Tennessee, as ambassador to China.

Making nominees suffer has long been a favorite pastime of Helms, who, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, controls their fate.

He held up Winston Lord’s confirmation as ambassador to China in 1985 until Ronald Reagan promised not to give aid to Chinese population control programs. In 1987, he delayed the confirmation of Melissa Wells as ambassador to Mozambique because he wanted the Reagan administration to throw its support behind the country’s anti-Communist rebels.

But those were precision strikes of limited duration; this time, it’s an open-ended scattershot offensive.

Never before has the Foreign Relations Committee been closed down, a move that prevents committee members from meeting to iron out legislative disagreements and to act on appointments, treaties, promotions lists and authorization bills.

In addition to the two arms control treaties, Helms is also preventing the committee from taking action on international conventions on women and the environment and more than a dozen bilateral investment treaties.

“The administration and Congress have shared goals of advancing arms control and non-proliferation, advancing our economic interests and helping Americans abroad,” said Wendy Sherman, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs. “Our nation’s security interests are being held hostage.”

Meanwhile, the ambassadors-tobe, their personal lives and their careers on hold, wander the corridors of the State Department casting about for something to do.

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