Helms takes the US diplomatic service hostage

Jesse Helms, the eccentric right-wing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has hit on a novel method of persuasion to impose his will on the Clinton administration: hostage-taking.

President Bill Clinton has refused to contemplate a proposal by the North Carolina Republican to eradicate the three agencies dedicated to arms control, foreign aid and dissemination of information. Mr Helms says if the agencies were absorbed by the State Department, $3bn (pounds 1.9bn) would be saved over the next four years.

Since Mr Clinton will not budge, Mr Helms has blocked 400 pending State Department promotions and the appointments of 30 ambassadorial nominees. Nearly one-sixth of US embassies - including Pakistan, Panama and Lebanon - area without ambassadors.

Mr Helms has in effect closed the Foreign Relations Committee, also suspendingbusiness related to ratification of international treaties and agreements.

International commitmentson arms control, the environment and investment have been put on hold because Mr Helms refuses to give the necessary legislative stamp of approval.

"These people are playing hard-ball and dirty pool at the same time and I'm not going to cave in," he told the New York Times. Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, said Mr Helms was creating management and morale problems in the foreign service. "Our problems ... are quite difficult enough as it is without the extra burden of not having our personnel in place."

The 30 people whose ambassadorial appointments Mr Helms has refused to approve are said to be strolling around the State Department, looking for things to do. Legally they must not make any contact with officials of the countries they expect to work in until the Senate ratifies their transfers. One man, a would-be envoy to the United Arab Emirates, has sold his house and is now having to pay domestic bills out of his own pocket.

Mr Helms is unrepentant. "Nothing is going to pot because an ambassador's not there," he told the New York Times. "I've seen them come and I've seen them go and the best thing about almost all of them is when they go."

If there is one thing Mr Helms despises even more than ambassadors it is foreign aid, most of which, he says, goes "down a rathole". On Thursday he scored a triumph when the Senate voted to reduce the annual foreign- aid budget from $14.7bn to $12.3bn. Development agencies will lose, but the US contribution to Israel remains unchanged at $3.1bn.