Trying to salvage landmark tobacco legislation, President Clinton accused members of Congress of standing in the way of saving children's lives and declared: "The American people will not stand for it."

"This is a critical moment of truth for Congress," Clinton said Saturday in his weekly radio address.Speaking directly to legislators, he said: "You are not just trying to kill the tobacco bill. You are standing in the way of saving one million children's lives."

Countering Clinton, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., said it should be up to parents, not the government, to discourage children from smok-ing. Sponsors of the legislation "think that they are going to accomplish something they absolutely are not going to accomplish," Helms said on CNN's "Evans and Novak."

Clinton is trying to breathe new life into the sweeping bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would raise cigarette taxes and more closely regulate tobacco. The legislation is bogged down in the Senate as Republicans and Democrats point blame at one another.

Clinton said the legislation has broad bipartisan support but is being held up by a few unspecified members of Congress who have "done everything they could to protect big tobacco by putting off a vote."

"The delay has gone on long enough," Clinton said. "The Senate should do nothing else until it passes tobacco legislation, and it should pass it this week."

Republican opponents contend punitive payments the legislation would assess the tobacco industry amount to nothing more than hidden taxation of people who smoke. The bill establishes "the biggest tax increase in history," said Helms, whose state is the nation's largest tobacco producer.

"In the first place, I don't think the bill is going to pass," Helms said. "I have not thought from the beginning that the American people will swallow that, and the evidence is piling up that they don't favor it."

In his radio address, taped Friday, Clinton said the bill is "reasonable, bipartisan and in the best interests of our children." He called it the most important issue before the Con-gress.

McCain's bill would charge tobacco companies at least $516 billion over 25 years, raise taxes on cigarettes by $1.10 a pack and grant the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate nicotine.

Helms and other conservatives say the proposal would undercut their drive for lower taxes and smaller government. Others say a sweeping bill is the only way to discourage teenage smoking.

Relations between congressional leaders soured Friday after parliamentary maneuvering ended without agreement on how the bill should proceed.

Clinton taped his radio address at the Boston home of Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., on the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y.