Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who rode into Congress as the white knight of the New Right, found himself a virtual pariah in the normally collegial and tolerant U.S. Senate last night.
As the hands on the chamber's large brass clock inched toward midnight, Helms was asked by a colleague whether he would ever be ready to abandon his filibuster against the gasoline tax bill and allow a vote.
"No," Helms answered.
"I've never spent Christmas in Washington, D.C. But I'm willing to do it if I have to."
His colleagues were less than enthusiastic about the prospect. In an unusual departure from Senate collegiality, the normally mild-mannered Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) fumed:
"The rules were never crafted to protect a minority within a minority within a minority. Seldom have I seen a more obdurate and obnoxious performance. I guess it is called hardball. In my neck of the woods, we call it stickball. Children play it.
"It seems the whole issue of the senator's tenure seems to be, 'How is it playing in North Carolina as to peanuts, tobacco and family farms?' Let them know in North Carolina that the next time those issues come before this body, there will be a veritable phalanx of opposition which will likely be most demeaning and disturbing to the senator's constituency . . . . "
Helms, sitting sullenly less than a foot away, did not respond to Simpson, although the attack was one of the most personal seen in the Senate in memory.
Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), manager of the bill that would increase the federal gas tax from 4 cents to 9 cents a gallon, described the mood of his colleagues in a word: "Angry."
Beyond the gas tax struggle, it was a battle between two men, Helms and Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) and a struggle for control of the Senate.
Helms already is involved in a struggle back home for his Senate seat with two-term Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., an ambitious New South progressive who last year won a battle with Helms over Hunt's proposal to raise gasoline taxes.
Four times in succession last night, Baker asked the weary, rumpled legislators for unanimous consent to vote on the bill. Each time, Helms rose to say, "I object."
"It's clear," Baker said bitterly, "the senator from North Carolina does not intend to agree to anything."
Helms responded: "That is correct."
Outside the chamber, a Democrat, one of the Senate's more thoughtful members, shook his head and said: "If Baker weren't being mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, a moderate Republican, this would never be happening. Helms and his friends want to embarrass and hurt him. This is a 'Get Howard Baker' move."
As the drama played out early this morning, some members turned to humor to break the tension. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) rose to suggest on the floor: "Free the Senate 100."
But Leahy was not laughing. "This is a fiasco," he said. "For the last 14 days, I have averaged 2 1/2 hours of sleep a night. I'm frustrated that this will be only the second time in my life that I haven't spent Christmas in Vermont. The last time was when I broke my back.
"And I'm frustrated about what this does to the Senate. If two or three people can totally misuse the majority, these rules allowing filibusters will be set aside. There will be some rules changes that I don't want to see."
Conservative Republicans were equally enraged. "I've listened to the senator from North Carolina for hours, and I haven't heard him discuss the legislation," Dole said. "There has never been a situation like this where one or two senators dictate to the rest of us."
Helms' companion-at-arms, John P. East (R-N.C.), tried to respond to Dole, but the Kansan would have none of it. Suggesting that the bill was not the issue, he told East curtly, "You ought to read it."
Even that one-time filibustering champion, Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), was disenchanted, saying, "I don't think this bill is worth staying for, like some of those others do.
"It's not like it is some great constitutional issue," he added, bringing to mind his historic speechifying against civil rights bills.
Later, Helms rose on the floor to respond to the attacks. "This senator did not come to Washington to gain popularity with his colleagues," he intoned. "He came here to do what he believes is right."