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New Congress Will Convene Without Conservative Icon Jesse Helms - 2002-12-21

When a new Republican-led U.S. Senate convenes next month, it will be without a lawmaker who played a key role in foreign policy for much of his three decades serving in the chamber - Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

Senator Helms is retiring after serving five terms in the Senate.

He was known as an icon of conservatism and an uncompromising foe of communism. He frequently criticized China.

"China's pitiful human rights record, China's brutal suppression of religious freedom, China's increasingly belligerent stance toward the democratic Chinese government on Taiwan and China's unbroken record of violating agreements one after another on other matters," he said. "You cannot trust them."

Cuba's President Fidel Castro had always been one of the Senator's favorite targets. In 1996, Congress passed a bill Mr. Helms co-sponsored, with the aim of choking off foreign investment on the island. Though roundly criticized in Europe and elsewhere, the law won fervent support from Cuban-Americans.

Mr. Helms won the nickname 'Senator No' for his success in blocking nominations and legislation from reaching the Senate floor. He played a key role in killing the nuclear test ban treaty.

"This treaty will not, could not, cannot accomplish its highly exaggerated stated goal of halting the spread of nuclear weapons," he said.

Mr. Helms' impact on foreign policy dates back to the 1970s when he fought the Panama Canal treaty. After taking over the Foreign Relations panel in 1995, he became perhaps the most powerful person in Congress on international affairs.

But Mr. Helms' combative style and blunt rhetoric also bred resentment. Critics described him as a heavy-handed reactionary who tried to impose extremist views on Congress, the White House and other countries. Phyllis Bennis, an analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, says history will not be kind to Senator Helms.

"The 'Jesse Helms era', as it were, will be one characterized by his obsession with trying to overthrow the Cuban revolution, his commitment to unilateralism and the rebuilding of what we might call a unipower (U.S.-centered) world," she said.

But he won the respect of his Senate colleagues. Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, was one of a number of senators who offered tributes to Senator Helms in his last days in the Senate.

"He is a senator whose greatest strength is his dedicated independence of thought and action," he said. "He is a senator who is neither frightened nor intimidated. And foremost he is a senator who has always stood up for what he regards as important."

The 81-year-old Mr. Helms, frail and wheelchair-bound, expressed heartfelt appreciation to his colleagues, acknowledging at the same time that he has been a controversial figure.

"There are newspaper editors in North Carolina and elsewhere who would say that any kind words ever uttered about Jesse Helms have been at best, exaggerations," he said.

Former cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole, wife of former Senator Bob Dole, has been elected to succeed Mr. Helms.

Part of VOA's Yearend Series