Is Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) going soft on sanctions?

The cantankerous, deeply conservative chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has long been counted among the most ardent defenders of U.S. economic sanctions that bar American companies from doing business with the likes of Libya and Iran. Writing in the policy journal Foreign Affairs earlier this year, he accused anti-sanctions lobbyists of "fighting for business as usual with thugs, tyrants and terrorists."

These days, however, Helms is beginning to sound a bit more flexible on the issue, according to congressional staff members and industry lobbyists who follow the debate.

Not only has Helms consented to a series of hearings on so-called sanctions reform, but members of his staff also sat down recently with representatives of USA Engage, a consortium of businesses, farm organizations and trade groups that was a principal target of his Foreign Affairs broadside. Helms is said to be particularly sensitive to complaints from other farm state lawmakers about the effects of trade sanctions on U.S. agricultural exports.

Marc Thiessen, a spokesman for Helms, said the chairman still believes firmly that trade sanctions are an essential foreign policy tool and that groups such as USA Engage have exaggerated the effects of sanctions on American business. Nevertheless, he added, "Senator Helms has set up a process in the committee to see if some consensus can be reached that protects our moral and national security interests. . . . If everyone works together, it's entirely possible we could have legislation" this year.

Capitol Hill is not the only place in town where sanctions are getting a second look. Following through on a pledge it made in April, the Clinton administration recently unveiled new rules that will permit American companies to sell food, medicine and medical equipment to Iran, Libya and Sudan--all of which are still listed by the State Department as sponsors of international terrorism.

OIL AND SANCTIONS: Speaking of sanctions, several American oil companies--including Occidental Petroleum and Conoco--have applied for permission to send representatives to Libya, according to government and industry officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. The companies have told the State and Treasury departments that they want to check on the condition of oil fields and equipment they abandoned when President Ronald Reagan ordered them out of Libya in 1986.

But with European competitors beating down the doors to get back into the oil-rich North African country, it's also clear that the American producers don't want to be left out in the cold. Earlier this year, the United Nations suspended sanctions against Libya after the government of Moammar Ghadafi turned over to Scottish authorities two men wanted in connection with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

The problem, for American companies, is that separate U.S. sanctions remain in place. And some relatives of Lockerbie victims oppose letting them return, even for a short reconnaissance trip.

"I think it would compromise the trial that's coming up and send Ghadafi the wrong message," said Rosemary Wolfe, who lost her 20-year-old stepdaughter, Miriam, in the bombing and heads an advocacy group for relatives of its victims. "We don't need to have American business putting pressure on this government to normalize relations."

BANNING BRIBES: For years, American companies seeking contracts overseas have complained that they suffer a competitive disadvantage because of U.S. laws that prevent them from bribing foreign officials. Foreign firms typically faced no such restrictions.

In December 1997, however, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright joined representatives of the 29-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and four other countries in signing a treaty to outlaw such practices.

Now comes word from the State and Commerce departments that the treaty is starting to have an effect.

Fifteen of the 33 treaty signatories--including the United States--"have ratified the convention and have taken steps to satisfy it," Stuart Eizenstat said at one of his last news conferences before leaving the State Department last month, where he was the undersecretary for economic affairs. He's now deputy treasury secretary.

Not that Eizenstat was entirely satisfied with the progress. Such economic powerhouses as France, Italy and Brazil, he noted, have yet to ratify the convention. And some that have taken steps to implement the treaty impose only minor penalties for companies that get caught bribing foreign officials.