Freshman Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) is creating static over the $30 million needed to create Radio Free Asia, but party elder Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) has sent a strong signal that this is one battle he's ready to fight.

"It would be a very nice thing if we could just have it, if we had all the money in the world," Feingold told us. "But what this is all about for me is bringing the deficit under control and asking some hard questions. Washington, especially the old-time veterans, just aren't used to asking those kinds of questions."

Feingold and Biden will square off later this month when the Senate debates whether it should authorize money to launch RFA. The station would be modeled after Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, a taxpayer-funded but independently run entity that broadcasts news into the former Eastern bloc and Soviet Union. Feingold has made budget-cutting a priority while Biden has backed RFE/RL and the creation of RFA despite the cost.

The Clinton administration seems split between the Feingold and Biden camps. It had wanted to pull the plug but now believes there is a role. The administration wants to fold these networks into the U.S. Information Agency, which manages Voice of America, under a new presidentially appointed board. Biden contends the broadcasters would lose their independence and credibility. The administration has already signed on with Biden in support of RFA.

Feingold, a member of the Foreign Relations European affairs subcommittee that Biden chairs, also faces RFE/RL's broadcasters who are fighting for self-preservation. He points out that the top 15 of RFE/RL's 1,600 employees collect an average of $240,000 in salary and benefits. The president of the Munich-based RFE/RL receives $316,824 in salary and benefits, including a $52,000 allowance for living expenses, German taxes and housing allowance.

Critics also cite redundancy: Why is Radio Free Asia needed when VOA has consistently broadcast into closed societies, particularly China, over the years?

VOA's radio broadcasts have long been a factor in many parts of China, where listeners number in the tens of millions. What the Chinese hear on VOA is news from around the world, a focus on the United States and, most important, news of what's really happening in their own country that their government doesn't report.

VOA's broadcasts during the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations were VOA's finest hour. When the shooting began and the tanks rolled in, Chinese government television broadcast a Disney movie about a talking fish, "The Incredible Mr. Limpet." At the same time, VOA was telling the Chinese of the massacre taking place in Tiananmen Square. Around China, students, peasants and workers gathered to listen to VOA. Each broadcast was transcribed and posted on walls. VOA was so effective that Chinese officials mounted a campaign to discredit VOA broadcasts as propaganda. They've also been trying to jam VOA programs since May 21, 1989, the day after martial law was declared.

But VOA has been getting through. The agency learned a number of tricks from years of trying to get around jamming in the former Soviet Union. It uses alternate frequencies, anti-jamming gear and powerful transmitters, and broadcasts instructions to listeners on how to get the clearest signal.

Joseph Duffey, USIA director, is dubious about what Radio Free Asia could offer that wouldn't overlap with VOA. Putting some daylight between himself and the Clinton administration, Duffey told our associate Andrew Conte: "I think a significant number of people, and I include myself in that group, have become a little more skeptical about Radio Free Asia. . . . VOA in China has increased its broadcasting . . . and it has a special evening program called China Focus, which tries to provide local news information for people about what's going on in China."

But Biden's office doubts that the information that gets through is well received. "People who listen to VOA are disinclined to believe what is said because they know it is a broadcast of the U.S.," said one Biden aide. "You have the largest country in Asia, which is China, that does not have democracy, does not have an independent news media. If we're going to hope for {democracy}, it is essential that people living in China get facts and information."

Feingold's bottom line is a little less lofty. "It seems when it comes to the federal government, the ability of these bureaucracies to remain in place when they are not needed is out of control," he said. "This is a great example of whether or not we are going to bring down our federal deficit."