A bipartisan group of senators invited for dinner at the White House last Wednesday experienced a phenomenon unknown to the public: William Jefferson Clinton losing his cool. According to senators present, he pounded the table and complained that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has "got me by the short hairs."

Lott had scheduled a vote for the next week on the treaty banning nuclear testing initialed two years ago by President Clinton as his crowning diplomatic achievement and centerpiece of his arms-control strategy. But Clinton did not have the two-thirds vote needed for ratification and wanted time to put public pressure on Republicans -- as he had on gun control, minimum wage and health care.

This time, the technique was not working. Congressional Republicans, generally in headlong retreat, enjoy leverage here. But beyond political advantage are serious national security implications.

This is considered a bad treaty, not verifiable and jeopardizing an effective U.S. nuclear arsenal, by many who want to avoid a treaty rejection for reasons of this country's international standing. That includes such national security experts as Henry Kissinger, Sen. Richard Lugar, Brent Scowcroft and former (Clinton-appointed) CIA director John Deutch. "I do not believe it can succeed" in banning all nuclear explosions, said ardent arms control advocate Lugar.

But many Republican senators want the treaty defeated on the Senate floor. That might stiffen the spine of future U.S. negotiators after three decades of flawed arms-control agreements.

The president and Democratic senators, led by Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, have pleaded all year for ratification. On May 24 assistant Democratic floor leader Dorgan said the treaty was not on Lott's agenda, adding: "It must be. It should be. I hope it will be." All 45 Democratic senators wrote the majority leader demanding action.

But sometimes giving an adversary what he wants is the best revenge. Late last month, Lott asked for unanimous consent to vote after the Columbus Day weekend. Startled Democrats agreed, only to realize that they didn't have the votes.

Ahead of the curve for once, the Republican leadership has used these past seven months to build a blocking minority. Suddenly, Democrats wanted the vote postponed. In his 11th test-ban speech this year last Wednesday, Dorgan proclaimed: "It baffles me that on an issue this big and important, we have people who seem not to want to understand and debate the treaty."

Clinton went into what the White House calls "full campaign mode." On Wednesday, he brought in Nobel science laureates and former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs to plug the pact. That night, he invited senators for that table-pounding dinner (which Lugar and other colleagues declined to attend). The president and his agents turned to a technique that has panicked skittish Republicans on other issues, pointing to polls showing public support for the treaty and warning of political calamity if the GOP thwarts them.

Sen. John Warner, Armed Services Committee chairman, does not want the treaty ratified but worries about international backlash if the Senate votes it down. As Columbus Day weekend neared, he sought a compromise mechanism to avert a vote. But national security adviser Sandy Berger wasn't playing. Putting on his hard face, he warned that if treaty rejection encouraged India, Pakistan and other countries to test nuclear bombs, Republican senators would be blamed.

Such mean talk often spooks Republicans. But unanimous consent will be needed to postpone a vote, and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms is adamant that the president can get that only by pledging to forgo ratification while he is in office -- nothing less. Democratic senators "are hoping to dictate the terms of their own surrender," Helms told the Senate last week.

Just as Defense Secretary William Cohen was testifying last week before Warner's committee in behalf of treaty ratification, Helms was reading to colleagues 1992 remarks by Republican Sen. William Cohen opposing an end to "necessary testing." It is truly possible that Republicans will not surrender on this vital issue of national security.

(C)1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.