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Helms Gives Ground on Weapons Treaty

Defense: Persistent opponent of pact hints it might win quick passage. Movement comes as Secretary of State Albright visits to press case.

March 26, 1997|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WINGATE, N.C. — After months of uncompromising opposition, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) on Tuesday raised the prospect of quick Senate ratification of a stalled chemical weapons treaty.

Helms, who spent the day escorting Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on a tour in his home state, announced that he would begin hearings on the Chemical Weapons Convention April 9. He then hinted strongly that the treaty could still be ratified by April 29, the day its provisions are scheduled to take effect.

The treaty requires all signatories to renounce the production and use of chemical weapons and to destroy all chemical weapon stocks. The United States must ratify by April 29 to participate in its key monitoring and enforcement elements.

"There will be no problem with it if we can continue to negotiate the way we have in the last few days," Helms told reporters during a joint news conference with Albright. "If both sides sit down and be realistic about it, there's a very good chance that there could be a treaty."

Helms has been a vociferous opponent of the convention, claiming that it would impose burdensome verification measures on U.S. chemical companies but leave nonparticipating nations like Libya and Iran outside its constraints.

While he reiterated his personal distaste for the treaty, Helms seemed prepared to let it come to a vote on the Senate floor. Winning Senate ratification of the treaty is a major Clinton administration priority and is considered among the first major challenges facing Albright as President Clinton's second-term secretary of State.

A senior aide to Albright said that, after discussing the chemical weapons treaty with Helms during the course of two long car rides Tuesday, she felt "increasingly confident she's going to get a vote in the Senate."

During an evening speech, Albright pressed the case for ratification. "The Chemical Weapons Convention sets the standard that it is wrong for any nation to build or possess a chemical weapon and gives us strong and effective tools for enforcing that standard," Albright said. "This will make it harder for terrorists or outlaw states to build, buy or conceal these horrible weapons."

Helms' earlier remarks came as he escorted Albright through a series of appearances in his home state and at Wingate University, a small liberal arts college of 1,300 students that Helms attended. Throughout the day, the two put on a conspicuous display of mutual admiration.

Standing next to Helms outside a museum dedicated to the senator's work, Albright said that the two are "developing a pretty solid friendship." Helms quipped: "She's a favorite of my family already."

After answering students' questions, the two left, walking at one point arm in arm as Helms turned to someone next to him and joked: "I think she's a keeper, don't you?"

It was an unusual moment for Helms, whose conservative views in the past have led him to clash frequently with senior levels of the country's foreign policy establishment. Albright explained their unusual rapport by saying: "We agree on the larger issue--the protection of American interests. And when we disagree, we're pretty straight about it."

Helms' tactical shift on the chemical weapons pact came as the two seemed to move closer on another important issue that has kept him at loggerheads with the administration for much of the last three years: Helms' insistence on streamlining and reorganizing the various foreign policy agencies of the government, including folding Aid for International Development, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the United States Information Agency into the State Department.

When Albright became secretary of State, she let it be known she had an open mind on the reorganization question; an aide said Tuesday that a plan is being developed within the State Department and would be completed in a matter of weeks.

"We're working on a plan for making better use of resources that we have," the aide said. A member of Helms' staff said that there was no connection between his shift on the chemical weapons treaty and the reported movement on reorganization.

Helms indicated that much of the progress on the chemical weapons treaty had come in recent days in talks with Democratic leaders of the Foreign Relations Committee who favor ratification.

He said that in a meeting last week with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), several differences were settled. A Helms aide said that 21 of 30 significant points of difference with the administration had been resolved.

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