THE betting among Senate insiders is that Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina wants to claim the chairmanship of the important Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This step would be interpreted as an opening volley in Helms's 1988 presidential effort. His move frightens career State Department people, the small band of pragmatists in the Reagan administration, and most of his Senate colleagues. Congressman Dante B. Fascell (D) of Florida, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a skilled legislator, has said privately that it will be impossible to hold House-Senate conferences to resolve differences. The working assumption of a Helms chairmanship is that he will terrorize the bureaucracy and paralyze Congress.
Helms can be stopped. There are two procedural possibilities, which will be discussed later. The most practical way of stopping Jesse Helms is for the Republicans not to elect Richard Lugar as majority leader.
Republican senators now jockey for positions in the most important Senate election yet to come. On Wednesday 53 Senate Republicans are scheduled to meet and decide who will succeed Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. as majority leader. At present there are five candidates: Sens. Robert Dole of Kansas, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, Lugar of Indiana, James McClure of Idaho, and Ted Stevens of Alaska. The first candidate to win a majority of those present and voting will be elected - 27 votes, if, as is expected, all 53 Republicans vote.
Who wins will determine whether Senator Helms stays as chairman of the Agriculture Committee and protects tobacco interests, as he pledged to North Carolina voters, or moves to Foreign Relations to use that base to build his 1988 presidential candidacy.
Senator Lugar's election as majority leader would make it easy for Helms to move to Foreign Relations. There is a future game of Senate musical chairs that results from the majority leader's election. The majority leader does not chair Senate committees. Lugar, like Helms, serves on the Agriculture and Foreign Relations Committee and ranks right behind Helms in seniority. If Helms stays at Agriculture, Lugar, an administration loyalist, would be chairman of Foreign Relations.
Lugar favors reducing farm subsidies, and even phasing them out, so Helms is not likely to leave the Agriculture Committee to Lugar. A Lugar victory means that Helms can leave Agriculture safely in the hands of Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who can be expected to protect subsidies on tobacco and other products.
With Lugar as majority leader, Sen. Charles Mc.C. Mathias Jr. of Maryland would be next in line for chairman if Helms stays put. Mathias, a strong arms control advocate, is anathema to Helms. Helms will move to block Mathias and to leave Agriculture in safe hands.
Will Lugar be elected? Elections for leadership posts are not determined by ideology. In a five-senator race, the administration will not play a major role. Personal relations and style matter. Senators will ask themselves a series of questions. Is the contender personable and tough? Does he bend or is he rigid? What are his other agendas? Is he a ''Senate man''? In the past, senators with an announced interest in the presidency have not been elected to fill the majority leadership. That weakens Dole. McClure is too ideological to sustain his chances.
Logically, right-wing Republicans should support Lugar to give Helms more power. Lugar is personable, not rigid, and has done his share of campaign finance favors to Republicans by heading the Senate Republican Campaign Committee. But Lugar is no shoo-in, since a vote for Lugar is a vote for Helms.
Geography and parochial matters also count. That's where Senators Stevens and Domenici come in. Stevens, despite abrasive qualities, is a Senate remainderman who has performed countless favors for senators, ministering to their concerns. The accumulation of these small favors adds up to lots of gratitude among his colleagues. Domenici is well liked and has been resolute with the White House on budget questions, thereby making him a ''Senate man.'' Moreover, Helms deeply troubles a few conservatives by working so closely with the right-wing lobbies that he is an extension of them.
What if Lugar wins? Helms can still be challenged. Helms has to be elected by a majority of the Republicans on Foreign Relations. This procedure, adopted by Republicans in 1973 to increase the accountability of senior members, gives members of the Foreign Relations Committee the power to turn Helms down.
If he is not rejected by his colleagues on Foreign Relations, the Senate still formally votes on the chairmen of its legislative committees once the new Congress begins in 1985. Normally, this is a perfunctory vote. But with Helms it is another matter. Democrats should have the gumption to challenge Helms and make it a party issue. Such a challenge would place enormous pressure on moderate Republicans. Their best out is to avoid a vote on Helms by electing Domenici or Stevens, thereby making it politically tough for Helms to shift in the first place. Otherwise, moderate Republicans will be tested on whether or not they have the courage to reject Helms.