An aroused Senate Foreign Relations Committee resounded with criticism yesterday of Sen. Jesse A. Helms (R-N.C.) for contesting the confirmation of senior State Department officials, and the North Carolinan countered with a blizzard of 293 additional questions for the would-be diplomatic policy makers.
The committee scheduled showdown votes on several contested nominations at 10 a.m. today. Lights burned late at State Department offices to produce answers to Helms' quiz before the meeting.
Chester A. Crocker, nominated to be assistant secretary of state for African affairs, received 107 questions in writing from Helms about 1 p.m. yesterday, shortly after fielding oral questions for more than an hour from other members of the Foreign Relations Committee.
John H. Holdridge, who testified in the afternoon on his nomination to be assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, received 57 written questions from Helms.
The North Carolina Republican, who has cast himself as the keeper of the flame for Ronald Reagan's original foreign policy views, fired off another 129 questions for Myer Rashish, who testified last week on his nomination to be undersecretary of state for economic affairs.
In each case, Helms has criticized the nominee but was unable to attend the hearing. He asked that action on the nominations be delayed until his questions are answered.
Chairman Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) announced his intention to call for a committee vote on Crocker and Rashish today and on Holdridge a week from today.
In a veiled rebuke of Helms, Percy said that the committee was prepared to meet night and day if necessary to move along the nominations and that yesterday's questioning of Crocker was being taped so the absent Helms could "listen all night long" if he cares to do so.
Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.), chairman of the Africa subcommittee, disputed Helms' charge that Crocker's performance in a just-completed trip to Africa "bordered on being dismal."
Democrats were more direct in their criticism of Helms. Saying that he has been "pushed beyond the brink" by Helms' tactics, Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D-Mass.) said "the time has come when a line must be drawn." He added, "The Senate has seen people in the past who tried to bludgeon this body to gain their views. You can't appease people like that." In the African policy context, Tsongas continued, the question is whether policy is going to be made by one person who "desires to be de facto secretary of state."
Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) strongly objected to a Helms letter made public last weekend criticizing Crocker, Holdridge, Rashish and other State Department nominees. "It casts aspersions" without proper documentation, Glenn said, and should be "either backed up or withdrawn."
Helms, who spent yesterday drafting a farm bill in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told reporters it would take only a word from President Reagan that "he wants these people" to convince him to let them pass.
Helms said he has heard nothing from Reagan and little from Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. in support of the nominees. "I ascertained that Ronald Reagan didn't know one thing in the world about these people" who have been nominated for high State Department posts, he said.
Crocker, in his committee testimony, confirmed that the Reagan administration is proposing that a constitution be drafted for Namibia, the rich and disputed Southwest Africa territory, before an internationally supervised election to determine its political future.
Crocker, who returned last weekend from extensive consultations on this issue in Africa and with major Western allies, called this "a strengthening and building onto" the previously established U.N. plan for Namibia.
Regarding Asia policy, Holdridge testified that there is "no essential change" in the U.S. posture toward the People's Republic of China.
Holdridge said the Reagan administration is changing the "scope and style" but not the basics of its unofficial relations with Taiwan, reporting that he has had "very frequent contact" with Taiwan's representatives in Washington since Jan. 20 to let them know that they are considered "old friends" rather than pariahs.
On the subject of Cambodia, Holdridge said the Reagan administration is continuing the Carter administration's policy of support for the position of the non-communist Southeast Asian nations. Specifically, this includes backing U.N. recognition of Cambodian Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea insurgency over the Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin regime.
Holdridge said a "high-level review group" is examing the agreement reached last fall between the United States and island states of Micronesia on their future political status, with no conclusion reached so far.