WASHINGTON -- The letter was vintage Jesse Helms -- a mailed fist in a velvet glove.
With elaborately courteous language, the soon-to-be chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee suggested to President Clinton that the president could face trouble on a host of foreign policy issues unless he agreed to postpone the congressional vote on a 123-nation world trade accord until next year.
"If you will agree to this, Mr. President, I can assure that it will have an exceedingly positive effect on my making certain that the administration's positions on all foreign policy matters during the 104th Congress will be considered fully and fairly," Mr. Helms wrote.
The White House is too deeply committed to a trade vote this year to comply. But the Helms letter, released yesterday, was just the latest signal that U.S. foreign policy is due for a major shake-up once the GOP assumes control of Congress in January, a shake-up that could hobble Mr. Clinton's effort to leave his own imprint on world affairs in the second half of his term.
With its hand on the government's purse strings and the North Carolina Republican calling many of the shots, the new Congress is expected to cut most foreign aid except that for Israel and Egypt; curtail U.S. military participation in overseas peacekeeping; put policies toward Russia and the United Nations under review; and perhaps overhaul the entire foreign policy bureaucracy, including the Foreign Service, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Information Agency and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
Even before they assume control, Mr. Helms and other GOP members are making their influence felt on the coming world trade vote, scheduled for Nov. 29 in the House and Dec. 1 in the Senate, a key test of Capitol-White House cooperation.
While incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich is committed to supporting the agreement, known by the shorthand GATT (for General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), making House passage likely, the battle for the Senate is just beginning and is sending jitters through the offices of senators who are assumed to be "free traders."
A spokesman for Bob Dole, who will become Senate majority leader, says his office has received more anti-GATT calls from Kansans than it got on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Many of the callers oppose the World Trade Organization, the new agency that would police world trade.
Grass-roots opposition is being fueled by radio spots featuring the voice of Pat Buchanan, the right-wing commentator and 1992 presidential candidate, who warns that GATT "creates world government and puts America's trade under foreign bureaucrats forever."
This kind of pressure has forced Mr. Clinton to tout the growth- and job-creating benefits of the trade agreement almost daily since last week's drubbing of Democrats in the midterm elections, and corporate supporters have entered the fray with their own advertising campaign.
If GATT fails to pass
Felix J. Rohatyn, a prominent international banker with Lazard Freres & Co., warned that a failure to ratify the agreement would play havoc with financial markets.
"Financial markets are now totally committed to open trade and investment," Mr. Rohatyn told the Senate Commerce Committee yesterday. "Any signal that carries with it a threat to international cooperation is bound to have serious consequences."
Last week's election results have fueled arguments that only the new Congress should be allowed to vote on a matter of this importance. But a move to put the whole question off until the new Congress assembles in January would derail the agreement, the White House fears.
Such a move would cancel the streamlined voting procedures agreed to by the current Congress, opening the legislation up to amendments and more delays. And some major countries, such as France, are postponing their own action on ratifying the accord until after the United States acts.
"If GATT fails to pass now, it's dead," says John Emerson, a senior White House aide, who assesses the Senate outlook this way: "A significant number who strongly support it . . . very little hard opposition, a lot of people inclined to support it, but a lot undecided."
If GATT passes, it will signal that a GOP-controlled Congress and Democratic White House can cooperate on matters of vital national interest. But that still leaves a lot of room for the Republicans to make trouble for Mr. Clinton on foreign policy, and this is where Mr. Helms comes in.
Master of Senate rules
A fierce political campaigner with a well-funded conservative power base in his home state, Mr. Helms is a master at using Senate courtesy, demands for information and parliamentary procedure to obstruct appointments or policies he opposes.
In coming months, Mr. Helms is likely to team up with Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, to raise questions about the costly deal reached with North Korea to freeze its nuclear-weapons program, and scrutinize U.S. commitments to advance an Israeli-Syrian agreement. Syria, he says, does not want peace with Israel, only the Golan Heights and American money.
His reservations about a Clinton "Russia first" policy toward the states of the former Soviet Union has already resonated in Moscow, where President Boris N. Yeltsin said this week that Russia would have to build bridges to the Republican congressional leadership.
With his courtly yet relentlessly confrontational style, Mr. Helms often comes across as two-dimensional. But even one of the U.S. diplomats he so often faults acknowledged yesterday that Mr. Helms frequently has a valid point.
He was right, this diplomat said, to pummel the State Department on behalf of American companies whose property had been expropriated by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
Now, Mr. Helms will be able to protect "American interests" his way -- not just in tiny Nicaragua but around the globe.