FOR JESSE HELMS, THERE IS THE world, and there is Raleigh. Given the choice, the septuagenarian senator will take the latter. That's why he's spending August at his home in North Carolina. He and his wife, ""Miss Dot,'' spend the summer days visiting friends around town and writing letters on one of the senator's cherished manual typewriters. Intimates say the Senate Foreign Relations chair isn't troubled by the controversy over William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts who wants to be ambassador to Mexico. The chairman's position: no hearing. So it is virtually impossible for Weld to get to Mexico City without first winning over Helms, who has said Weld ""isn't ambassador quality'' and charges that the Boston Brahmin is too soft on drugs. (Weld does favor the medicinal use of marijuana but insists that he's able to take on the Mexicans over the flow of illegal drugs.) ""Helms has had more controversy than this Weld thing for breakfast every morning for the last 25 years,'' says his former media adviser Alex Castellanos.
But Helms had to swallow a mouthful last Friday morning. Right there in the Raleigh paper - and on the front page of The New York Times - was Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who became the first senator to hit Helms hard over Weld. If Helms doesn't grant a hearing on Weld's nomination, Lugar told a gathering of Beltway reporters, he'd use his muscle as the Senate Agriculture chairman to take on Helms's beloved tobacco programs. ""There's quite a bit to look at,'' a sly Lugar told NEWSWEEK, referring to the government's support for tobacco farmers and the looming $368 billion settlement between the tobacco companies and the state attorneys general. Suddenly the GOP, already riven over Weld, was more deeply divided than ever.
A former Rhodes scholar, Lugar may seem too cerebral for such a street brawl. But Lugar, who was Richard Nixon's ""favorite mayor'' when he ran Indianapolis in the late 1960s, has been known to mix it up. In the 1980s Lugar picked two high-profile fights with the Reagan administration. A staunch conservative, Lugar nevertheless backed sanctions against the then apartheid South African government, and he was an early critic of the Marcoses' Philippines.
And the Helms-Lugar relationship has been testy. In 1995 Helms used his seniority to snatch the Foreign Relations chair. This infuriated Lugar, who was next in line and is widely considered an expert on diplomacy. Even worse, Helms has cut Lugar out of key roles such as managing the reorganization of the State Department. Lugar insists, however, that this ""is not a personal quibble.'' It is, he says, about whether one chairman should dictate policy to the entire Senate.
But while he says he's fighting for 99 senators against Helms, Lugar remains a one-man army. There are only two ways to get around Helms, and neither seems promising. The first is for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to circumvent the chairman and help bring the nomination to the floor. But Lott says he won't. The other option might be for the committee to vote to force Helms to hold a hearing. Parliamentarians are debating whether that's allowed; even if it is, it may be a moot point. Senators are loath to rock custom and challenge Helms.
Even Weld is keeping his voice down. After vowing to launch a public campaign against Helms, the former governor spent last week fishing in the Adirondacks. A day after Lugar issued his ""Let's rumble'' challenge to Helms, Weld hadn't called the Hoosier to thank him. Lugar says no senator has called him, either - a reminder that in the Senate a chairman is king of his committee. Especially Helms.