Lashing back at a combative Sen. Jesse Helms, President Clinton suggests the veteran Republican is unfit to lead the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after saying Clinton would need a bodyguard for his safety if he ever visited North Carolina.
Clinton tersely denounced Helms' remarks Tuesday as "unwise and inappropriate" and said Republicans would have to decide whether to put their "trust and confidence" in the North Carolina Republican.White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta was more blunt. He said Republicans should take "a very hard look" at whether they want the Foreign Relations Committee chaired by "somebody with these kind of extreme views."
Without apologizing, Helms said his remarks were a mistake. Last week Helms caused a stir by saying Clinton wasn't fit to be commander in chief.
James Rosen, the Raleigh, N.C., reporter who interviewed Helms for The News & Observer, said he did not think Helms was serious.
"I think it is a reach to interpret Sen. Helms' statement as a threat. I didn't interpret it that way," Rosen said. "Sen. Helms has a tendency to use rhetorical force when he speaks. He said this with a bit of a laugh, which perhaps should have been better conveyed in the article."
Helms didn't discuss the incident with reporters gathered outside his house as he and his wife left home Wednesday morning.
Instead, he tossed the reporters a plastic bag of chocolate toffee candy. "Here you go. Trick or treat," Helms said as he drove away.
While attacking Helms' remarks, the White House hoped they would feed fears that the incoming Republican Congress will be governed by leaders with radical views who will try to lead the country too far to the right.
Still grappling with how to deal with the Republican landslide, Clinton began laying down markers on key GOP proposals and setting out areas where the two sides might find agreement.
At a news conference, Clinton said he opposed a constitutional amendment to allow voluntary prayer in public schools; last week he said he'd consider such an idea. "I do not believe that we should have a constitutional amendment to carve out and legalize teacher- or student-led prayer in the classroom," Clinton said.
He also rejected incoming Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's offer to support a world trade agreement if Clinton would back a cut in capital gains taxes.
"I disagree that there should be some deal cut regarding capital gains," the president said. "I don't think that's the right thing to do." He said the trade agreement was important on its own merits.
Trying to shape the GOP agenda, Clinton suggested the administration would be happy to work with Congress on shrinking government, enacting campaign and lobbying reforms, the line-item veto and relieving states from carrying out orders from Washington.
Clinton said he would resist any efforts to repeal the family leave law, a ban on assault-style weapons and the Brady restrictions on handgun purchases.
The Secret Service, meanwhile, determined that there was no threat against Clinton by Helms.
"As far as we're concerned, the matter is closed," spokesman Jaime Cagigas said Wednesday.