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Committee Climbing Back To Relevance

David Broder Washington Post

Memo to assignment editors: Take another look at Senator No.

When the battle over William F. Weld’s nomination as ambassador to Mexico ended with the former Massachusetts governor’s withdrawal, the television cameras and much of the press lost interest in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its controversial chairman, Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

Helms confirmed his reputation as “Senator No” by refusing repeated pleas from the nominee, from President Clinton and from the majority of the members of his committee to give Weld a hearing. He would not be moved.

But that was not the beginning or end of the story. And the press - as usual focusing on conflict and ignoring the rest - has distorted reality again.

Last week, Helms and his committee started a series of hearings on the expansion of NATO - a topic slightly more important than the identity of the U.S. ambassador in Mexico City but not one that has received much TV or press attention.

The leadoff witness was Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. With Helms in the chair, it was a model of what a congressional hearing ought to be - and rarely is. The chairman set a six-minute time limit for each questioner, including himself. And, mirabile dictu, it was observed.

The questions were thoughtful and succinct; the answers responsive and articulate.

Later in the week, the committee heard different viewpoints from former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick. Henry Kissinger and others will be along in due course.

Watching the proceedings, I was stunned to find that the Foreign Relations Committee is not a battleground of competing ideologies and egos but a place where senators and witnesses are dealing with each other - and important issues - with the mutual respect and seriousness of purpose the subjects deserve.

Subsequent reporting showed this to be far more typical than the Weld shootout ever would have led me to believe. According to both Democrats and Republicans, Helms has set out this year to rebuild the damaged standing of his committee - and is well on the way to accomplishing it.

The committee had seen that respect erode during the eight-year chairmanship of (now retired) Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, a gentlemanly but ineffectual Democrat. When the Republicans took over in 1994 and Helms asserted his seniority rights to keep Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana from becoming chairman, many groaned. The quarrelsome tone of the committee’s sessions in 1995-96 confirmed their worst fears.

But this year has been different. Albright replaced Warren Christopher at the State Department and made the wooing of Helms a high priority. Equally important, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware succeeded Pell as the committee’s ranking Democrat, and engaged Helms in some serious politician-to-politician talk.

“I went to him,” Biden told me, “and said, ‘If you want to be Senator No and fight the administration on everything, I will fight you. But if you want to make this committee relevant again, I give you my word that I will cooperate.’ With the sole exception of the Weld nomination, he has done just that.”

Helms confirmed that conversation in an interview in which he told me that “this committee has members with many different viewpoints but we get along well.” Even at the time he was blocking Weld, he made a point of publicly praising Biden: “While we do not always agree … by working together in an effective and bipartisan manner … this Foreign Relations Committee has become relevant again for the first time in years.”

That is important for the Senate - and for the country.

Already this year, it has meant that Helms allowed the committee to endorse Senate ratification of the chemical weapons treaty, despite his strong personal opposition to the measure.

A bill to pay off much of the United States’ accumulated debt to the United Nations and to give the State Department increased control over other government agencies with overseas responsibilities has passed the Senate. Clinton badly wanted the U.N. matter taken care of; Helms has been pushing the reorganization plan. This year, with Biden’s help, they have found a way to do both. Helms actually took the lead in keeping “poison pill” amendments off the bill, even when they embodied anti-abortion positions close to his own heart.

NATO expansion and the related question of security for Bosnia are the next big tests for the committee. The issues raised at last week’s hearing are serious, but again, Helms and Biden are working well together. It was an impressive start on informing the Senate and the country of what is at stake.


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