What's behind another ambassador delay

Latest controversy over Moseley-Braun nomination points up Helms'spower.

Sen. Jesse Helms has been called the black hole of ambassadorial nominations.

That's because diplomatic hopefuls often disappear when they start moving through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he chairs.

The Republican from North Carolina has stalled dozens of nominees over policy concerns or personal disagreements, even stalemating some from within his own party.

So it would seem that there's nothing unusual with the latest imbroglio over Clinton's nomination of former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun as ambassador to New Zealand. But the controversy over this nominee may not be that simple.

In the machinations of Washington politics, some observers say Ms. Moseley-Braun's nomination is as much a purposeful effort by the White House to embarrass its foreign-policy nemesis as it is Senator Helms's aggressive use of power.

"To some extent, I wonder how much the administration wants this appointment to go through," says Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington. "It's like throwing sand in Helms's eyes."

Conservative activists say the controversy is aimed at galvanizing key Democratic constituencies.

"The Democrats don't have a Newt Gingrich or a [Kenneth] Starr to kick around, so they are looking for a new boogeyman," says Phyllis Berry Myers, executive director at the Center for New Black Leadership in Washington.

Unethical behavior?

Helms has accused Moseley-Braun of ethical misconduct and is requesting her tax and financial records, claiming she spent campaign funds from her 1992 Senate bid on personal items, a practice prohibited under campaign rules.

"I wonder if the president and his associates even examined her record before submitting it to the Senate," he said in a statement.

President Clinton said Friday that he is attempting to reach an agreement with Helms. Hearings on the nomination could proceed as soon as tomorrow and a vote could come Wednesday, Helms said, if his office receives the "relevant documents."

But some say the real source of tension between the two is an old dispute over Confederate symbolism.

In 1993, Moseley-Braun in a speech attacked the Confederate flag, linking its symbolism to slavery. That speech is credited with stopping an effort by Helms to renew a patent on the the United Daughters of the Confederacy insignia, which contains the Confederate flag.

After Moseley-Braun's name was sent to Capitol Hill, Helms told a reporter he would require an apology for the speech before moving her nomination forward.

Another sticking point for the nomination is a 1996 trip to Nigeria in which Moseley-Braun met with the late-dictator Gen. Sani Abacha. The trip raised the ire of many in both parties.

Despite the controversy surrounding her nomination, some Republicans say a hearing should be allowed. After all, Moseley-Braun is the first former senator since 1831 to have an ambassadorial nomination blocked. She is also the only black female to serve in the Senate.

"She deserves a fair hearing," House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois said last week.

The record shows Helms has a long memory, and is well practiced in holding up nominations.

Personal politics

He iced Melissa Wells, a Reagan appointment for ambassador to Mozambique, for more than a year in a personal protest to US policy toward the then-Marxist country.

Rather than twist in the wind, some have withdrawn or had their names from the process.

The Clinton administration, for example, in 1995 pulled the nomination of Robert Pastor as ambassador to Panama. Helms pointed to Pastor's role in renegotiating sovereignty issues with Panama during the Carter administration.

"He's one person. And for him to have that much power, I don't think is good for our democracy," says Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D) of California, who had a run-in with Helms last week.

"He's looking at the world through his own narrow lens," she adds. "There are 99 other senators who should get to vote."

Recess appointment

The Moseley-Braun stalemate has led to calls for, and speculation about, a recess appointment. Presidents can use it to appoint nominees when Congress is out of session.

Circumventing the will of a senator like Helms can be a dangerous prospect. But in this case, some say Mr. Clinton has little to fear.

"There is no way the president is going to get any major issue through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee anyway. He doesn't really need Helms and they already impeached him," says Jim Thurber, a political scientist at American University in Washington.

"[Republics] have embarrassed [Clinton] so many times on major policy ... [a recess appointment] would just be rubbing it in their face," he adds.

Held up by Helms

The following are some of the nominees who battled Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

J. Brian Atwood: Nominated to be ambassador to Brazil, he withdrew his name in May. Mr. Atwood, head of USAID, had opposed a Helms effort to merge the agency with the State Department.

William Weld: Helms refused to hold confirmation hearings on Mr. Weld's nomination to be ambassador to Mexico, and Weld withdrew. Helms had accused him of being soft on drugs.

Group of 19: In 1995, Helms blocked a group of 19 nominees in an effort to force the Clinton administration to restructure foreign-policy agencies. The group was released after a Democratic concession on an unrelated procedural issue.

Robert Pastor: A Clinton nominee for ambassador to Panama in 1994, his name was pulled in 1995. Helms cited Mr. Pastor's role as a National Security staff member during the Carter years, when the US agreed it would cede control of the Panama Canal to Panama.

Melissa Wells: In 1987, Helms, upset over US policy toward the then-Marxist nation of Mozambique, delayed her nomination for 15 months.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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