Last week it was Jesse Helms versus William Weld. Now it's Jesse Helms versus Richard Lugar.
The two veteran senators - Helms of North Carolina and Lugar of Indiana - sit on opposite ends of the Republican foreign-policy spectrum. One is a southern Baptist neo-isolationist and former broadcast commentator; the other is a Midwestern Methodist internationalist and former mayor.
Their decade-long struggle on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee entered yet another round after President Clinton tapped Massachusetts' Republican governor to be ambassador to Mexico.
In earlier tussles this year, the Lugar-backed Chemical Weapons Convention was ratified over Senator Helms's objections. Senator Lugar got money restored to the budget to help control and destroy ex-Soviet nuclear and chemical weapons.
But Helms gained significant concessions from the White House in the chemical-weapons fight. It agreed to merge the United States Information Agency and the Arms Control and Development Agency with the State Department and bring the Agency for International Development under the State Department's control. Helms also blocked Lugar's effort to amend the budget bill to pay the United States' back United Nations dues.
Helms's refusal even to hold a hearing on Governor Weld's nomination, strengthened by the Brahmin Yankee's confrontational response, moved Lugar to turn up the volume.
Raising the stakes
After criticizing Helms's stonewalling last week, he then upped the ante at a Monitor breakfast. Noting that he is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, on which Helms is No. 2 Republican, Lugar pointed out that tobacco is under his committee's jurisdiction. If Helms continues to ignore his foreign-policy concerns, Lugar said, he could cause trouble for Helms.
The threat is not idle: North Carolina is the largest tobacco-producing state, and Lugar's panel will hold hearings on the tobacco deal recently struck between the cigarette firms and state attorneys general.
"I must take the measures that would be uncharacteristic, at least of my normal mood and demeanor in these situations, and I'm prepared to do that," Lugar said. "And I'm doing it now.... I am, diplomatic or not, objecting." A Helms spokesman retorted he hopes Lugar won't take any action harmful to tens of thousands of North Carolina farmers over an unrelated issue.
And in a sign of growing tension in the GOP over the issue, Rep. Gerald Solomon, (R) of N.Y., said Friday that he wants all House Republicans to go on record supporting Helms. He argues Weld's support for medicinal use of marijuana is anathema to the GOP.
And in a threatening letter sent to Lugar, Representative Solomon wrote, "I hope those implied threats are not sincere on your part. I would hate to see your future legislation jeopardized."
History of tension
The Helms-Lugar rivalry goes back more than a decade. In 1984, Helms was set to become foreign-relations chairman, but in the throes of a close reelection race, he promised North Carolinians he would forgo the post in order to take the agriculture chairmanship to protect tobacco.
That gave Lugar the foreign-affairs post, where he quickly became a star. His most notable act was blowing the whistle on Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos's election fraud and opening the way for Mr. Marcos's departure and the installation of the true winner, Corazon Aquino, as president in 1986.
But when Republicans lost control of the Senate in the 1986 elections, Helms decided he had met his commitment to his constituents and pulled rank on Lugar, reclaiming the top GOP spot on foreign relations. The move still clearly still rankles Lugar 11 years later. When Republicans regained the Senate majority in 1994 vote, Helms became foreign relations chairman, with Lugar taking over agriculture.
Both men are conservatives with a long list of accomplishments, but Helms is furthest to the right. While Lugar is a dedicated arms-controller, Helms never met an arms treaty he liked. Lugar backed President Reagan's and President Bush's foreign policies; Helms often took issue with both, once holding up several Reagan foreign-affairs appointments for a year.
"Helms follows a simple formula: Implacability equals strength," writes commentator Fred Barnes in the conservative Weekly Standard. "It works."
But Lugar can be stubborn, too, when he thinks principle is at stake. He brought down Marcos when Mr. Reagan might have looked the other way. Last year he took on liberal farm-state Democrats to pass agriculture reform, ending the crop-subsidy system in place since the Depression.
Lugar cautions that in the end he may not support Weld's nomination. But he means to have a hearing. Even then, he points out, Helms could block a vote, or let the nomination out of committee only to block it on the Senate floor.
Unless the two make a deal, it could simply be a question of who blinks first.