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World: Foreign Policy Impasse May Bring U.S. Senate Collision

  • Kevin Foley

Washington, 12 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - The halls of the U.S. Congress are quiet now as members of the Senate and House of Representatives take their summer recess, but a September confrontation that may impact the nation's foreign policy looms for two of the Senate's most influential members.

The catalyst for the pending clash between Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) and committee vice chairman Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) is President Bill Clinton's nomination of the moderate republican governor of Massachusetts, William Weld, to be the next U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

Helms is opposed to Weld's appointment and has said Weld will never become an ambassador to any country. The full 100-member Senate must approve ambassador appointments, but it cannot even consider Weld's nomination until he goes before Helms' committee for a confirmation hearing. As committee chairman, only Helms may decide when a hearing would take place, and he has refused to schedule one. Clinton nominated Weld on July 23.

When Helms said he would not schedule a hearing, Weld resigned his governor's post to start a campaign to force Helms to change his mind. Weld did not find much support at first. President Clinton said Weld should be given a hearing, but offered little help beyond that. In the past week, though, Weld found an ally in Lugar. Lugar says he does not know if he would vote for Weld, but he says the nominee is entitled to a hearing.

Last week, Lugar said no single senator should have dictatorial power over the conduct of Senate business. This weekend, Lugar suggested that he might use his own power as chairman of the Senate Agricultural Committee to influence legislation that would be important to Helms' home state, whose economy is heavily dependent on farming.

Lugar is not supporting Weld so much as he is challenging the Senate's custom of deference to committee chairmen. What that means in practice is that the chairmen of the 20 committees in the Senate have almost absolute power over the conduct of legislative business, including the approval of presidential appointments.

The U.S. Constitution says the Senate must approve certain classifications of presidential appointments, including ambassadors to foreign countries. Presidential appointments are first referred for discussion to the Senate committee that would have jurisdiction over the subject matter. For example, the nomination for Secretary of Defense is sent to the Armed Services Committee. Foreign policy appointments are referred to the Foreign Relations Committee.

It is then up to the committee chairman to schedule a public hearing to question the nominee. The committee recommends whether the nominee should be confirmed by the full Senate, which then makes its vote.

The confirmation process can only start, however, after the committee chairman schedules a hearing. This is a routine process most of the time, but the ability of a chairman to control the schedule is a powerful political weapon, and Helms has made frequent use of this tool as a means of expressing his opposition to Clinton Administration policies since he became Foreign Relations Committee chairman in 1994.

The chairman's control of the schedule is not a written Senate regulation. It is a custom that has developed over generations. There are parliamentary manuevers that may be employed to force hearings, but Senators are reluctant to start feuds with each other, especially when support may be needed for future causes.

In this case, there is a personal element involved as well. In the Senate, and the House, the political party that holds the legislative majority names all of the committee chairmen. The senators with the most seniority are allowed to choose their assignments. Helms is serving his fifth six-year term. Lugar is in his fourth term. However, when the Republican Party gained control of the Senate in 1984, Helms chose the Agriculture Committee, and Lugar took foreign relations.

They both surrendered these posts when the Democrats regained control of the Senate in 1986. When the Republicans won the majority in the Senate again in 1994, Lugar hoped to chair the foreign relations committee again. Helms, however, decided that he wanted that job and so he exercised his right of seniority, a decision that reportedly angered Lugar.

When he was asked by a television interviewer whether he held a grudge against Helms, Lugar replied: "Well, I don't plead totally guilty but partially guilty."

"It is not a very attractive situation ... for either one of us," Lugar said. "I would say I have high regard, as a matter of fact, for Senator Helms. He is a remarkable American senator and patriot. But I do ask him to loosen up."

Helms has said little about Lugar's demands. Through a spokesman, he said only that he hopes Lugar will not take any action that harms North Carolina farmers.

Lugar says he wants the issue resolved.

"In one way or another, I'm going to try to persuade Senator Helms to have a hearing, to have a vote," he said. "There are certain parliamentary procedures available. They may or may not be effective."

He would not specify which procedures he might use.