A FAX dispatched to reporters last week by Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee contains startling news: The ''Hostage Crisis'' has reached its 101st day.
The hostage in question is not a beleaguered American diplomat abroad but American diplomacy itself, which is caught in the cross-fire of a bitter dispute that has pitted the chairman of the foreign relations panel, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, against the Clinton administration and its Democratic allies on Capitol Hill.
Since last summer the two sides have used faxes and speeches to swap angry charges over a hotly contested proposal by Mr. Helms to reorganize and downsize the nation's foreign-policy bureaucracy. With both sides dug in, prospects for a compromise appear slim. The result: a sober conclusion, long since reached at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, that the mechanism of American foreign policy could remain stuck indefinitely.
''The foreign policy of the largest country in the world is being trapped by a major fight in which neither side has defined its objectives honestly and fairly,'' says one State Department official, angry at both parties to the dispute. ''The result could be deadlock for the duration of this administration.''
Caught in the middle of the dispute are at least 18 ambassadorial appointments that have been held up by Helms until the impasse is broken.
Other casualties of the standoff include a dozen international agreements, led by the START II strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia. Helms supports the treaty but says he will not release it from committee for a floor vote in the Senate until the administration negotiates in good faith on his reorganization plan.
A 1992 agreement that bans the production, sale, and use of chemical weapons is also being held up. But the Chemical Weapons Convention would not make it to the Senate floor in any case, since it is opposed by Helms and by Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, whose committee must also approve the treaty.
The Clinton administration says Helms is holding treaties and ambassadors hostage to his reorganization plan. Helms says the Clinton administration is holding his reorganization bill hostage.
The bill in question mandates, among other things, abolishing three independent foreign-affairs agencies - the Agency for International Development (AID), the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), and the US Information Agency (USIA) - and folding their functions into the State Department.
A similar plan was proposed by Secretary of State Warren Christopher earlier this year. Mr. Christopher later said the agencies needed to be preserved and recommended that President Clinton veto the reorganization measure if passed.
The House has approved its own consolidation bill but Democrats have blocked passage of Helms's measure in the Senate.
Mr. Clinton and Helms met at the White House last August to iron out differences, but with no results. Since then, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, who is also on the Foreign Relations Committee, has taken over the job of negotiating with Helms.
FACED with White House opposition, the conservative North Carolinian has adopted a new approach. Instead of calling for the elimination of specific foreign affairs agencies, he now insists on cutting $2.5 billion from their combined operating budgets (including funds for salaries, rent, and travel costs) over the next five years.
A Helms spokesman says the purpose is to shrink the foreign-policy bureaucracy and thus force the administration to decide whether and how to consolidate.
''The reality is that any significant budget cuts will require shutting down one or probably two of the three agencies,'' says Marc Theissen. ''Let [the administration] make the choice.''
State Department officials say cuts of such magnitude will not just affect bureaucrats but eviscerate the programs they manage, dealing with everything from international terrorism to third-world poverty.
''If you cut the bureaucrats, the programs will die,'' says Tex Harris, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the professional association and union that represents American diplomats.
''It's like medieval warfare,'' Mr. Harris adds. ''If your frontal assault fails, then you try to starve the other side out.''
For his part, Senator Kerry last week proposed cutting operating budgets by $1.7 billion over five years.
Kerry's response to Helms and reports that Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas is growing impatient with the impasse have moved the issue off center, but only slightly. Negotiatons have moved from ''from deep freeze to slow motion,'' notes one congressional observer.
Amid continuing mutual charges of bad faith, a breakthrough will be hard to come by.
Asked whether the administration would agree to a cut greater than that proposed by Kerry, a senior Clinton official recently implied not.
''The administration prefers that no cut be mandated,'' the official said. ''Helms's proposal is not something Kerry supports and not something the administration supports.''
All of which leaves the State Department and the three independent agencies in continuing limbo.
''The discussion is now focusing on the numbers themselves and none of the numbers on the table in the Senate negotiations between Helms and Kerry is linked to their impact on the effectiveness of American diplomacy,'' says Mr. Harris. ''The whole process is flawed.''