Is Jesse Helms Whistling 'Dixie' Over Nomination?

The North Carolina senator goes to bat to deny an ambassadorial post to a former adversary. Score one for the White House.

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She’s no longer facing him across the floor of the United States Senate, but Carol Moseley-Braun and Jesse Helms are still battling it out. When the White House announced the nomination of Moseley-Braun as U.S. ambassador to New Zealand recently, the North Carolina senator jumped into the fray. Citing allegations, never proven, that Moseley-Braun used 1992 campaign funds for personal purchases, he demanded Wednesday that the IRS and Justice Department hand over "sensitive" documents about the former Illinois senator and her staff members. In exchange for the information, Helms would agree to hold hearings on the nomination, which he has repeatedly promised to block.

The White House rejected Helms' offer, claiming it could never get so much information together by Helms' November 1 deadline. "That was not realistic," says TIME Washington correspondent John Dickerson. "Everybody knew that." So what's the story behind the scenes in this ongoing drama? Perhaps it's that Helms, a 26-year Senate veteran, repeatedly clashed with Moseley-Braun during her term, most memorably over the use of the Confederate flag. Moseley-Braun, the first black woman to become a senator, later accused Helms of taunting her in an elevator by whistling "Dixie." The White House, meanwhile, appears to be relishing the whole matter, watching Helms get into potentially deep water with accusations against a minority and knowing that it can always bypass the nomination process using a "recess appointment" when Congress takes a break next month. "The White House is trying to make the Republicans look inflexible and obstructionist," says Dickerson.