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Helms Harsh in Public but Polite in Private

January 21, 1987|PAUL HOUSTON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As Christmas rapidly approached four years ago, one man--dubbed "Sen. Scrooge"--blocked Congress' frantic efforts to adjourn and go home.

Jesse Helms was carrying on a seemingly endless filibuster against an increase in the gasoline tax, infuriating colleagues and making him a near-outcast in the Senate. Finally, the resentment boiled over and, in an unusual violation of Senate custom, several members openly denounced the Republican from North Carolina.

"Seldom in my 17 years of legislative experience have I witnessed a more obdurate and obnoxious performance," fellow Republican Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming declared. Eventually, Helms relented and the tax passed.

In Helms' 14 years in the Senate, his obstructionist tactics and outspoken ways have made him one of its most controversial members. Ironically, the harsh public image contrasts with the politeness and restraint he often exhibits in private dealings with colleagues, aides and reporters.

One of Helms' favorite tactics has been to force repeated roll-call votes on abortion, school prayer and other emotional issues. Although he frequently loses, he has been able to turn his opponents' votes against them, using his direct-mail organization to denounce them for ignoring the will of the conservative electorate.

As happened on the gasoline tax bill, Helms found himself isolated from most of his colleagues on a 1983 proposal to make the birthday of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday. Accusing the slain civil rights leader of espousing "action-oriented Marxism," Helms unsuccessfully filibustered against the bill.

The North Carolinian also has helped stall a number of foreign policy initiatives. He blocked adoption of the international treaty repudiating genocide until 1985, when proponents agreed to add a number of limits to it. In 1984, he joined Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee to block much of a Central America aid package requested by the Administration.

At one time, Helms delayed several dozen diplomatic appointments until he received assurances from the Administration that it would find jobs for six diplomats that he said shared his conservative views.

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