WASHINGTON — Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina scored a surprise victory today, ousting former committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar of Indiana as ranking Republican member of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The 45 Senate Republicans, meeting to rule on the political and personal squabble between the conservative Southern maverick and the Midwestern moderate, voted 24 to 17 to give Helms the seat.
The vote overruled a 7-0 vote by the committee for Lugar, who led the panel for the last two years while the Senate was under Republican control.
Helms, who had cast the battle as a defense of the Senate's cherished seniority traditions, said: "The seniority system won today. It was never a personality contest between Dick Lugar and me."
'Not a Loss' for Agenda
"It's certainly not a loss" for his conservative agenda, Helms added.
Helms was elected to the Senate in 1972 and Lugar in 1978, but both joined the influential committee at the same time in 1979. Lugar had said the issue should be decided on who would be most effective as the No. 1 minority Republican.
After the vote, Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) said, "There was really nothing evil or sinister or riotous going on."
When the meeting ended, he said, Republicans went up to Helms, congratulated him and said, "We're glad it's settled."
Lugar said he did not think the issue should have been decided on seniority, "But apparently these Republicans do."
Lugar Won Preliminary Vote
Before the vote, Lugar was predicting easy victory, having won the preliminary vote in the panel when Jan. 6 when Helms and Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.) were absent.
Lugar had circulated letters to Republican colleagues pointing to Senate rules that allow a ranking committee slot to be decided on factors other than simple seniority.
While on its surface the squabble was over a key job, in broader terms the fight was over the tone of the Senate GOP's foreign policy voice.
As committee chairman in the 99th Congress--when Republicans controlled the Senate--Lugar was a moderating force, pushing for Administration sanctions against South Africa and for the "people power" revolution of Corazon Aquino in the Philippines.
Lugar's stands did not always please the Administration, especially when Congress, led in large by Lugar as well as prominent Democrats, overrode President Reagan's veto of the South African sanctions last year.
White House Preferred Lugar
But in the current battle, the White House preferred Lugar to Helms, who with his considerable parliamentary skills has bottled up ambassadorial nominations and loudly opposed Administration policy toward Chile, El Salvador and South Africa, accusing the State Department of subverting anti-communist governments.
As a job, the ranking seat on the Foreign Relations Committee carries little influence: If the majority party members stick together, they rule.
But the rank does have its privileges--it controls one-third of the panel's budget, including the hiring of nine staffers. The ranking member can heavily influence the drafting of minority reports, a matter of much interest to the Administration.