WASHINGTON — James A. Baker III won't take over as secretary of state until next week but the style of his new regime at the State Department is already becoming apparent.
He has spent far more time on Capitol Hill than on Embassy Row, and almost as much time at the side of President-elect Bush as inside the State Department. For the moment, at least, grand questions of foreign policy are taking a back seat to immediate problems of politics and personnel.
"Policy? We haven't given it a moment's thought," a senior aide said, only half-joking.
Baker and his team of nine advisers, closeted away in a Spartan row of offices on the State Department's ground floor, have been virtually invisible--except during a few lunch hours when the secretary-designate caused a sensation by taking his lunch in the employees' cafeteria.
There have been no large-scale policy planning studies, aides said, and nothing like the flying squads that swept through the building spinning off dozens of recommendations at the beginning of the Reagan Administration eight years ago.
Instead, they said, Baker has spent his time working closely with Bush as the President-elect has filled out his Cabinet, pondering his choices for two dozen top jobs in the State Department and preparing for his own confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which begin today.
Aides said that a deliberate, systematic approach is characteristic of Baker. "Jim Baker does a lot of reconnaissance before he moves," said Johnathan Miller, a former White House aide. "He'll hang back, the way he's doing now, and pick his shots when he's ready."
Baker's approach to Congress has been characteristic as well, they say. Even though there is no doubt that the Foreign Relations Committee will approve his nomination quickly, Baker has spent weeks wooing members of the panel and days preparing for his testimony.
Door Would Be Open
He moved first to pacify Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the archconservative who has been a gadfly to several secretaries of state. "He came in and listened, and assured us that his door would always be open and that was the most important thing we wanted to hear," a Helms aide said.
Then he spent time with the panel's liberal Democrats, beginning with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), one of the Reagan Administration's most vocal critics from the left. "They hit it off very well," a Kerry aide said. "He listened, he took notes . . . He really seems to want a bipartisan foreign policy."
By the end of last week, Baker appeared to have won the hearts of every member of the often-contentious panel. Helms even agreed to a "no-ambush pact," a promise to warn Baker in advance of what questions he plans to ask. "Any man who can make both Jesse Helms and John Kerry sing his praises is either a political genius or he's telling them different things," a committee aide said.
In fact, Baker offered the senators few specifics on foreign policy and told them that the new Administration is still studying its approach to several major issues, aides said.
Among the questions under study:
--U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, where President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has called for an entirely new basis for superpower relations. Baker may announce a formal review of American policy toward the Kremlin in his testimony today, a State Department official said. In addition, the new secretary of state plans to travel to Europe early in his term to meet with the allies and begin work on joint positions on conventional military force reductions, nuclear arms control and other East-West issues.
--U.S. policy toward Nicaragua, where Congress has refused to meet the Reagan Administration's requests for military aid to anti-government Contra rebels. Baker is considering the appointment of a new special envoy to Central America to reinvigorate U.S. diplomacy in the area, according to a source who has discussed the issue with the nominee.
Meanwhile, Baker has visited former Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter to ask their advice, as well as all six living former secretaries of state. He has spent several Saturdays at the elbow of Secretary of State George P. Shultz, learning the mechanics of the job.
And he has been working steadily on his appointments to the key second- and third-level jobs in the State Department, the undersecretaries and assistant secretaries who run programs and oversee policy in five major regions of the world.
To the satisfaction of Baker and his aides, the choices have been closely held, and few have leaked before their formal announcements.
So far, the appointments have gone to two kinds of nominees: longtime figures in the foreign policy Establishment, and close associates of Baker.