Secretary of State-designate Madeleine K. Albright sailed virtually unchallenged through her confirmation hearing yesterday and appeared assured of prompt approval by a friendly Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

From day-old freshmen such as Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) to Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), members saluted Albright as a "role model" and champion of democracy and welcomed her promise to seek bipartisan consensus on foreign policy.

As ambassador to the United Nations, Albright has been a key member of President Clinton's foreign policy team, but Helms and other Republicans mostly addressed her as if she bore no responsibility for what they viewed as ill-advised or failed policies, such as the invasion of Haiti.

Because of blunders in Clinton's first term, Helms said, "our adversaries very much doubt our resolve at this moment. So, Madam Ambassador, in your new post a lot of Americans are praying that you will help change that. . . . It is my hope that as the president's most senior foreign policy official, you will devote your strength and courage to bring some coherence, direction and fresh ideas to America's foreign policy."

Helms predicted that "as time goes by we're going to disagree" -- especially over his quest for a total overhaul of the United Nations -- and said Albright was "sincerely wrong" in some of her views. But he emphasized his desire to "work together" with Albright.

Committee members spoke admiringly of the Czech-born Albright's background as a refugee first from Nazi Germany, then from the Soviet Union, and her ability to speak several foreign languages. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) expressed gratification that as the first woman named to be secretary of state -- and thus the highest ranking woman ever in the executive branch -- Albright will be lowering yet another barrier to the advancement of women in public life. Despite the friendly atmosphere, some serious differences lie ahead between the administration and the Republican-controlled Senate over such issues as U.S. obligations in an expanded NATO, ratification of a global treaty banning production and use of chemical weapons and the foreign affairs budget.

But Albright and members of the committee chose to accentuate the positive, stressing their areas of agreement and their mutual support for a U.S. leadership role in world affairs. Albright offered no policy initiatives, restating such familiar Clinton administration themes as a commitment to European security and the need to form a constructive relationship with China. "We are very Euro-centric, but Asia is practically equal in importance for us," she said, stressing the need for "a strong bilateral relationship with China . . . to expand areas of cooperation, reduce the potential for misunderstanding and encourage China's full emergence as a responsible member of the international community."

Among the issues to which she promised to assign "highest priority" were this summer's planned announcement of new members for NATO, the quest for peace in the Middle East and efforts to combat international drug traffic, all hardy perennials from Clinton's first term. Albright also exhibited a well-honed sense of what questions not to answer.

When Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) asked her opinion of Helms's proposal to abolish three of the government's foreign policy agencies and merge them into a slimmed-down State Department, she was noncommittal, promising only to remain "open minded" about how best to spend the foreign policy dollar.

When Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) asked what the administration's proposed "charter" for a new relationship between NATO and Russia is going to say, Albright responded that it would be "premature to go into more detail."

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) asked her views on the deployment of U.S. troops overseas, perhaps the most contentious foreign policy issue of Clinton's first term because of U.S. involvement in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia.

Albright, once the outspoken advocate of "assertive multilateralism" in global hot spots, replied that she "would never advise using American forces where there are other means available, or there is not support from Congress and the American people, where there is no exit strategy or no strong possibility of winning."

Hagel accepted her response without challenge.

Outgoing Secretary of State Warren Christopher set the laudatory, genial tone for the day when he introduced Albright at the hearing as a skillful, creative diplomat and "master of the one-liner." His favorite Albright wisecrack, he said, was her description of him as "almost lifelike."

That was a reference to Christopher's low-key style and reserved demeanor. Albright, who has a reputation for plain speaking, is likely to differ from Christopher in style if not substance, and promised the committee that she would "tell it like it is," at home and abroad. She showed her readiness to speak bluntly when four demonstrators from an organization called Voices in the Wilderness rose in the back of the hearing room to protest U.S. policy in Iraq. Displaying photographs supposedly showing children starving because of international economic sanctions, they demanded to know Albright's views on "the suffering of Iraqi children."

Capitol Police officers ejected the four, but Albright said she was happy to respond. "I am as concerned about the children of Iraq as anyone in this room," she said. "The person who is not concerned is {Iraqi President} Saddam Hussein. . . . He is responsible for the starving children."

Before the hearing, Helms's staff posted two dense, bureaucratic organization charts depicting the United Nations and affiliated groups such as the Food and Agriculture Organization. These are a favorite target of criticism from Helms, who has called for the United States to pull out of the world body unless it undergoes radical reform. Spectators chuckled over such entries as the "Committee on Conferences" and "Committee on Soups and Broths." But Helms had a serious purpose: to demonstrate what he called "the rotten way the United Nations has been operated."

He said the fact that Albright engineered the ouster of Boutros Boutros-Ghali as secretary general and his replacement by Kofi Annan was not by itself sufficient to persuade Congress to appropriate the more than $1 billion in U.S. back dues and assessments. Albright agreed reform is needed, but said some of the burden must fall on other governments, "not just on the U.N. bureaucracy and Kofi Annan." She said the United States should pay up because "we believe in the rule of law and we believe that contracts are sacred."

CAPTION: Outgoing Secretary of State Warren Christopher recalled at the hearing that nominee Madeleine K. Albright once jokingly described him as "almost lifelike."