WASHINGTON -- Move over, Jesse Helms.
Christopher H. Smith, the boyish Republican who leads anti-abortion forces in the House, is usurping the senator from North Carolina's role as Congress' biggest obstacle on foreign policy.
In a game of political chicken with the White House, Smith's pivotal voting bloc has stalled congressional approval of nearly $1 billion that the United States owes to the United Nations and billions of dollars in new support for the International Monetary Fund. The impasse also threatens Helms' cherished State Department reorganization.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright calls it "legislative blackmail" and says that "this is shutting down our foreign policy."
Albright courted and won over the curmudgeonly Helms last year, helping to transform the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he chairs, from a sinkhole of Clinton administration initiatives into a forum for respectful give and take between Congress and Foggy Bottom.
But Smith, 45, who represents a jagged slice of central New Jersey, is a different story. He and his allies are linking passage of major foreign-affairs legislation to a ban on money for family planning groups abroad that lobby for abortion rights. With the White House threatening a veto, the result has been to block the bills.
During a hearing with Albright last month, the eight-term congressman denounced President Clinton's advisers for giving "a blank check to the international abortion industry."
Then he proceeded to lecture the secretary, inserting a comment about his movement's rallying issue, late-term abortions.
"If it's shocking and inhumane to jam scissors and a vacuum hose into the head of a partially delivered baby, why is it any less violent, shocking and inhumane to dismember the bodies of children with surgical knives, or to dislodge and destroy babies with hideous suction machines?" he asked.
This graphic imagery doesn't even begin to convey Smith's passion -- some call it obsession. Eyes fixed on his listener, words pouring out in a fusillade, he speaks with a fervor born of two decades of activism and a drive fortified by prayer and fasting.
"When he's addressing a group, you look at him and his heels are in the air; he speaks on his toes," says Richard Traynor, a founder of the Legal Center for the Defense of Life in Morristown, N.J.
Human rights supporter
No one questions Smith's commitment. And while he gets tarred in Washington with a single-issue brush, critics who have watched him closely acknowledge that abortion isn't all that moves him. He is very serious about international human rights. "He actually cares about people after they're born," says a frequent opponent.
From Jews denied the right to emigrate from the former Soviet Union to Buddhists in Tibet; slaves in Sudan and Mauritania; ethnic Hutus in Congo; Vietnamese boat people; Copts in Egypt and Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Smith has championed the causes of minority groups, political prisoners, the poor and campaigners for religious freedom around the world.
He visits prisons and refugee camps abroad and regularly gives victims of repression a platform in Washington at sometimes daylong hearings of his subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights.
A three-time visitor to China, each time bearing lists of political prisoners to inquire about, Smith has used hearings and statements to put a harsh spotlight on Beijing, which he says "murders its own people and then lies about it."
China's government is a doubly tempting target for Smith because it's not only widely seen as repressive but it uses sterilization and coerced abortion to enforce a one-child policy.
His criticism draws praise from anti-Beijing activists such as Harry Wu, a Chinese-American who was detained by authorities in China in 1995 while working to expose prison conditions.
"I can't find many people like him on Capitol Hill," says Wu.
For Smith, human rights and opposition to abortion are pieces of the same value system that he says is summarized in a verse from Matthew 25 that stresses the need to help "the least of my brethren."
It is rooted in a devoutly Roman Catholic Irish-American upbringing. Smith's father, a driver for Borden's milk who later opened a sporting-goods store, used to tip his hat when passing a church. Smith attended Catholic schools in Iselin and Perth Amboy, N.J.
"I think he's driven by his faith," says Rep. Tony P. Hall, an Ohio Democrat and a frequent ally of Smith's on international humanitarian issues.
"It defines him," says Stan DeBoe, a Trinitarian priest from Jessup who for five years served as Smith's part-time, $9,000-a-year adviser on international human rights and religious freedom.
On holy days such as Ascension Day, 40 days after Easter, Smith would sometimes ask DeBoe to celebrate Mass in his office, pushing a table toward the door to serve as an altar. Before important votes, Smith might say, "Father Stan, can you come to my office for a moment?" and the two would share a prayer.
Forming his stands on policy, "I look to a number of sources for guidance, including the church," he says.
Smith became an anti-abortion activist while a student at Trenton State College after reading an article about a baby surviving the procedure. After graduation in 1975, he worked briefly in his father's store before becoming executive director of the New Jersey Right to Life Committee.
"He was never too big to do the nuts-and-bolts work," says Anne Berberich, Warren County Right To Life coordinator. His biggest effort came in 1979, in lobbying for a state abortion bill that included a parental-notification requirement. The bill passed both houses in Trenton before being vetoed by then-Gov. Brendan Byrne, a Democrat.
Smith's first congressional victory, in 1980, was widely seen as a fluke: At age 27, he ran against longtime Rep. Frank Thompson, then under indictment in the Abscam scandal.
The next time, Democrats matched him with state Senate President Frank Merlino, who belittled Smith's youth.
"Beat it, kid, I'm talking to the press," Merlino told Smith at one point; at another, he told Smith to come see him after the election and he would give him a job as a congressional page.
Smith won that race, and his victory margins have since grown to the point where Democrats have all but stopped mounting a serious challenge.
"He understands Main Street politics," says Pete McDonough Jr., press secretary to New Jersey's Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. One sign is an assiduous constituent-service operation. Another was his successful effort to prevent the Lakehurst Navy base from being shut down, something he plunged into with characteristic fervor.
Smith, whose father was a Teamster and who often votes with organized labor, crosses party lines to oppose the death penalty, back gun control and social spending, and will happily join coalitions with like-minded Democrats.
But so unwavering is he on abortion that he has even drawn the ire of Helms, one of the Senate's most consistent anti-abortion champions and a hero to the Christian Right.
During a conference committee meeting last summer, Helms and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, tried unsuccessfully to persuade Smith to detach anti-abortion language from major legislation authorizing the State Department's programs.
In a clear reference to Smith, Helms at one point said he didn't need to be instructed by someone who was still in "knee pants" when he, Helms, was actively working to ban abortion.
Smith didn't budge. Later, he criticized Helms publicly. In remarks quoted in Human Events, he said: "Jesse Helms has been a letdown on this."
This kind of talk sounds familiar to family planning groups that Smith accuses of pressing a campaign for abortion on demand worldwide, and that he says are trying to suppress evidence of dangerous health consequences of abortion, such as breast cancer.
While Smith does not oppose using federal money to supply contraceptives to the poor, "I object to over-prioritizing it," and he stresses the need for sexual abstinence.
"Whatever else is said about him, even if he has a sincere, deeply held belief in human rights, he doesn't believe women -- or at least women of childbearing age -- are part of the human family whose rights need to be protected," says Estelle Rogers, legislative director for Planned Parenthood.
Asked what he thinks of women who elect to have an abortion, Smith said: "I think they're victims, co-victims with the baby."
He insists that he has compromised, to an "excruciating" extent, on "Mexico City" anti-abortion language. The name stems from a policy on international family planning adopted by the Reagan administration at a U.N. population conference in Mexico City in 1984. The policy persisted until Clinton rescinded it in early 1993.
He is willing to grant Clinton a waiver that would allow U.S. aid money to go to groups that perform abortions, provided that the groups don't lobby for abortion rights.
The White House, which has a potent constituency of its own to serve among voters who support abortion rights, has refused his offer. At stake in the impasse is not only the United States' reputation at the United Nations, where it is drawing resentment as a deadbeat, but also the IMF's ability to respond to future financial crises such as those that rippled across Asia.
Says congressman Hall: "Both sides are dug in to the point where they can't retreat."
Pub Date: 3/16/98