WASHINGTON -- With flashes of temper, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms gaveled colleagues into silence yesterday while scornfully refusing ever to hold a confirmation hearing on William F. Weld's nomination to be ambassador to Mexico.
"What Mr. Weld appears to be threatening is a war within the Republican Party," Helms said, looking toward Weld, who was vTC near the back of the packed hearing room. "Let him try."
"I, Mr. Weld, do not yield to ideological extortion," Helms told the former Massachusetts governor, referring to a charge the Republican moderate had previously leveled at him.
But Helms's bid to end the months-long drama over the nomination failed when the committee's senior Democrat, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, announced that he would try to circumvent the chairman and petition the nomination directly to the Senate floor.
The personal feud between the two men became even more bitter after the meeting when Weld told reporters that Helms' actions would show the Senate as "a despotic institution."
Weld vowed to fight on. "I'm going to keep up with the Spanish," he said.
At the White House, President Clinton said he was disappointed by Helms's continued refusal to grant Weld's nomination a hearing. Although he said he was encouraged by Biden's challenge, he did not sound optimistic about winning the battle.
The president said that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and his fellow Republicans control the Senate. "They may well have the ability to prevent this from ever happening, and they may prevail. But the battle is not over yet," he said.
A morning of Senate committee theater opened with flashbulbs popping as Weld entered a side door to the committee room alongside Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the Indiana Republican who has demanded a hearing and used a parliamentary rule to force yesterday's meeting. Helms, coming face-to-face with Weld as he entered the hearing room, relaxed his stern demeanor in a display of Southern cordiality, shook the nominee's hand and smiled.
This comity passed in a moment, however. Calling the session to order, Helms criticized "a barrage of misstatements of fact" by the media implying that his refusal to hold a hearing on the nomination was unprecedented.
He declared that "the sole purpose of this meeting" would be to discuss instances in which other senators had themselves blocked hearings for nominees to ambassadorships and other senior government positions. He permitted no one else besides Biden to speak, and gaveled the meeting to a close 30 minutes after it began.
Helms said that over the past 10 years, senators other than he had blocked hearings on 154 nominations in several different committees.
"Unprecedented? You make up your own mind about that," he told the crowd.
As Lugar sat beside him in stony silence, Helms said that on the Senate agriculture committee, Lugar had blocked a hearing for a nominee.
Referring to Biden, Helms said that as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, the Delaware Democrat had likewise bottled up nominations by refusing to schedule hearings.
When Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry interjected with a question, Helms banged the gavel and snapped: "I insist that you exercise some decorum."
At another point, Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota tried to interrupt Helms to ask if Lugar could respond to the criticisms being leveled at him.
"I'm not going to debate with the senator," Helms replied testily.
When Clinton chose Weld for the Mexico post in the spring, Helms objected to the Massachusetts governor as being soft on drugs, citing his support for the medical use of marijuana and needle exchanges. Helms also criticized Weld's drug-prosecution record as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts.
Weld said at the time that the real reasons were his moderate stands on such issues as abortion and gay rights. The senator, Weld said, was resorting to "ideological extortion."
Seeking to counter charges of inflexibility, Helms yesterday released an Aug. 1 letter to the president in which he offered to hold a hearing for Weld if Clinton would nominate him for an ambassadorship to any country where illicit drugs were not an important issue, as they are in Mexico.
In the letter, Helms also said that the impasse over the Weld nomination had the potential of "spilling over into other matters as well," which seemed to suggest the North Carolina conservative might block other administration foreign policy initiatives.
Helms' spokesman denied any intended threat, but Clinton later said, "I don't think it was implied; I thought it was explicit."
After Helms ended the hearing, the senators who had been denied a chance to speak joined Weld in commenting to reporters outside the chamber.
Lugar acknowledged Helms wasn't alone among committee chairmen in blocking a nominee, but noted that in the case of Weld, a committee majority had called upon the chairman to hold a hearing. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said she was "ashamed" of Helms's conduct.
Biden said that he has never known Helms to buckle to public pressure, and said he would concentrate on trying to round up 51 votes to bring the nomination to the floor without a hearing. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Senate 55-45. A vote on the Senate floor would ultimately depend on Lott allowing one.
Pub Date: 9/13/97