With Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) conspicuously absent, former senator Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) received a warm reception from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday as she responded to questions Helms had raised about her fitness to serve as ambassador to New Zealand.

Despite Helms's earlier suggestion that she "look for another line of work," Moseley-Braun, the nation's first African American woman senator, appeared headed for approval by the committee.

With its racial and gender implications, the controversy over Moseley-Braun's nomination, along with the Senate's earlier rejection of a black Missouri judge for the federal bench, was threatening to become an issue for next year's elections. Democrats rallied strongly behind her, and few Republicans have shown any desire to question her ethics.

Committee members of both parties indicated they were satisfied by her responses, and ranking Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) said he assumes her nomination will be sent to the Senate Monday in time for a vote before Congress adjourns for the year.

"I'm satisfied. I think these matters have pretty much been researched," said Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), who presided at the hour-long hearing in the absence of Helms, who went home before the hearing started, according to an aide.

Responding to questions raised by Helms, Moseley-Braun emphatically denied any misuse of funds in her 1992 campaign or in trips to Africa while she was in the Senate.

She denied widely publicized allegations that she spent as much as $200,000 in campaign funds on personal luxuries, saying she converted no campaign funds to personal use and that a Federal Election Commission audit showed that no more than $311.28 in campaign funds may have been used personally by her campaign manager.

"I don't know what it takes to put a stake in the heart of that kind of nasty rumor," she said. Moseley-Braun was defeated last year in her reelection campaign.

Moseley-Braun said she paid for two trips to Africa out of personal resources and denied ever espousing positions at odds with official U.S. policy. In reference to meetings she had with a former Nigerian dictator, she said other lawmakers have paid visits to "less than P.C. [politically correct] countries and the problem never rose to this level."

With Helms having skipped the hearing, it fell to Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) to raise a few gently worded questions about her finances. Most other Republicans did not question her, while Democrats used their time to praise her.

Asked afterward if she was disappointed that her "accuser" had not shown up, Moseley-Braun chose a diplomatic response: "I'm just happy to have had a hearing."

For a time, even that had been in doubt. Shortly after she was nominated, Helms said she should apologize for having successfully fought him over renewing a Confederate insignia design patent for the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1993 and then issued a statement saying the committee would examine "serious charges of ethical misconduct" in her past. Helms later demanded thousands of pages of documents on the allegations. The administration balked at first, then produced them.

Senators have said confirmation is likely unless Helms or another senator puts a "hold" on her nomination. If that happens, Democrats have said they will ask President Clinton to utilize a constitutional provision allowing him to make appointments during congressional recesses.

One of the main questions raised by Helms was why the Justice Department declined to act on requests from Internal Revenue Service agents to convene a grand jury to investigate alleged campaign funding abuses. Official papers showed the IRS claims were based only on "media accounts and a few FEC documents" and that the department needed more than that for a prosecution, Biden said.

Other sources said another document raised questions about racial motives. In it, an IRS agent in Chicago referred to minorities as "they" and said, "After all, if 'they' are 'smart 'nough' to get elected 'they' are 'smart 'nough' to go to jail."