Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) yesterday signaled trouble for the ambassadorial nomination of former senator Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.), who tangled with Helms six years ago in a furious exchange over the Confederate flag.

Last week Helms suggested to a reporter that Moseley-Braun should "at a very minimum" apologize for the flag incident. Yesterday he issued a statement saying the committee would examine "serious charges of ethical misconduct" in her past.

Moseley-Braun, the first African American woman to be elected to the Senate, was nominated by President Clinton earlier this month to be ambassador to New Zealand. She was defeated for election to a second term last year by Republican Peter Fitzgerald after a campaign that focused in part on questions about her personal and campaign finances and on her controversial 1996 trip to meet with a Nigerian dictator.

In his statement, Helms made no mention of Moseley-Braun's successful opposition in 1993 to a Helms proposal that would have renewed the United Daughters of the Confederacy's design patent on an insignia featuring the original flag of the Confederacy encased in a wreath. After Moseley-Braun argued in an impassioned speech that the flag was an emblem of slavery, the Senate, which had earlier approved the patent, reversed itself and voted 75 to 25 to reject it.

Instead, Helms dwelt on ethical questions. "This nomination comes to the Senate with an ethical cloud hanging over Ms. Moseley-Braun. . . . Charges of ethical lapses led the voters of Illinois to determine she was not fit to represent them in the U.S. Senate," he said.

Helms said the foreign relations panel will hold hearings when it receives "all of the essential papers required of all nominees" from the White House. "The committee will examine serious charges of ethical misconduct in her past. If it turns out in the course of those hearings that all these reports are false, the committee will consider her nomination," he said.

Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, reported earlier in the day that Helms, when questioned by a reporter about the nomination, said: "At a very minimum she has got to apologize for the display that she provoked over a little symbol for a wonderful group of little old ladies." He suggested Moseley-Braun "better look for another line of work."

Asked about the report, Clinton said he hoped Helms would not block Moseley-Braun's nomination. "There has been an unprecedented amount of playing politics with ambassadors here . . . and, again, it sends a signal to the rest of the world that there is a new isolationism in the country, that we don't really care whether we have ambassadors in other places." He pledged to "work as hard as I can" for the nomination.

Efforts to reach Moseley-Braun for comment were unsuccessful.

Former senators normally enjoy an easy road to confirmation by their former colleagues. The last to be turned down was former senator John Tower (R-Tex.), who had been nominated by President George Bush as secretary of defense in 1989.

Two years ago, Helms single-handedly blocked confirmation of former Massachusetts governor William Weld (R) as ambassador to Mexico by refusing to hold hearings on the nomination. Weld is a moderate who had angered Helms on drug policy and other matters.

CAPTION: Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) said "serious charges of ethical misconduct" raise concerns about Moseley-Braun.