Sen. Jesse A. Helms (R.N.C.), a leading conservative critic of the Panama Canal treaties, said today that Senate Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) "is squirming like a worm on a hot brick" over the issue.
Helms referred to Baker, whose position on the treaties could be pivotal, after calling on his conservative audience to pressure the Senate's "weak sister" to vote against the treaties. Helms commented on Baker when asked specifically about Baker's role.
Approval of the treaties requires a two-thirds vote (67 votes) by the Senate. Baker is the leader of 38 Senate Republicans.
Baker, appearing on "The Loyal Opposition" broadcast today on NBC, said he has not made up his mind on the treaties. "I have decided not to decide on that issue for the moment because it is too important to make a snap judgment," he said, adding that "in good time" he would make a decision, but not "until I know what I am talking about."
[Also appearing on the program was House Minority Leader John J. Rhodes (R-Ariz.), who said, "I think it is possible over this Panama Canal thing we are going to have some pretty violent disagreements but I think as Howard Baker said, we should look at the disagreements in the Democrats' Party, too."]
Helms addressed by telephone a meeting of the Florida Conservative Union called to express oposition to the treaties, which were signed Wednesday in Washington by President Carter and panamanian leader Omar Torrijos.
Nothing that Baker "has his own political ambitions," Helms said the Minority Leader "will have to handle such pseudo-Republicans are Javits, Hatfield. Case and Mathias." He was rederving to Sens. Jacobs K. Javits of New York. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, Clifford P. Case of New Jersey and Charles McC. Mathias Jr. of Maryland, considered moderates.
"If we all continue to put pressure on the weak sisters in the Senate." Helms told his audience, "then we can won this thing."
Helms said that there currently are sufficient votes in the Senate to block approval. "But whether we will have the strength later on remains to be seem," he added.
Senate floor action has been put off until at least January by Majority leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who said Saturday that the current atmosphere is too emotionally charged.
Other conservative opponents of the treaties, which would turn the Canal Zone over to Panama by the year 2000, have singled out Baker. In a speech here Saturday night, Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill), chairman of the American Conservative Union, said that "Howard has been kind of teetering on the brink. We want to make sure Howard gets religion, too."
Crane said that the ACU has placed ads in Tennessee newspapers reading: "Howard Baker Can Save Our Canal in Panama."
According to James Roberts, ACU's executive director, treaty opponents have devised a "Southern Strategy" in their attempt to block Senate approval. "We think that the Southern Democrats hold the balance of power - Southern Democrats and Howard Baker, that is," Roberts said in a telephone interview.
The weekend conference here, billed as a southern regional get-together for conservative activists, was the first since the treaties were signed.
Mike Thompson, chairman of the Florida Conservative Union, said the ACU is considering holding another session on the canal, controversy, possibly in Atlanta.