Conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, who began the year praising the Lord for the arrival of President Bush, has crossed swords with the administration lately on foreign policy.
Mr. Helms, North Carolina Republican, has scolded Mr. Bush for getting too friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin and is blocking the nominations of three of the top five officials at the Treasury Department in a dispute with the White House over trade policy.
While Mr. Helms says he is still a strong supporter of the administration, his actions are a departure for the man who told a conservative conference in February, “Thank the Lord, we have a new president, on whom we can rely to work with us — not against us — in advancing America’s interests in the world.”
At a recent Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Mr. Helms rebuked the president for calling Mr. Putin, a former Soviet KGB chief, “trustworthy,” “a remarkable leader,” and a man with whom Americans “share common values.” Mr. Helms said Mr. Bush was “prematurely personalizing” his relationship with the Russian leader.
“We must not forget that under Mr. Putin’s leadership, the press has once again felt the jackboot of repression; arms control treaty obligations remain unfulfilled and violated; dangerous weapons technologies have been transferred to rogue states; Georgia’s and Ukraine’s security has been threatened; and, a brutal, indiscriminate military campaign in Chechnya continues unabated,” Mr. Helms said. “For these reasons, Mr. Putin is far from deserving the powerful political prestige and influence that comes from an excessively personal endorsement by the president of the United States.”
A Senate Republican aide insisted the media are reading too much into Mr. Helms’ recent tussles with the White House. “He really does like the president and wants to be helpful,” the aide said. “He’s not looking to pick fights at all. With Putin, he’s just being true to his nature.”
A spokesman for Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill said the department and the White House “are working hard to address Senator Helms’ concerns” on the trade issue so that the nominees can be voted upon by the Senate.
“We are very anxious to have our nominees confirmed and are in discussions to satisfy all parties,” said Treasury spokesman Rob Nichols.
Mr. Helms is concerned that the administration’s implementation of a Caribbean trade pact approved last year is costing North Carolina thousands of textile jobs. His objection is preventing Treasury from getting in place the deputies who will oversee management of the public debt and security at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
An administration source said Mr. Helms wanted the White House to come up with a “regulatory fix” for the trade issue but talks are now focused on devising new legislation to address his concerns. The source said the discussions are complicated by the prospects of getting Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, to agree to an eventual solution.