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Albright and Helms forge a friendship

Call it a goodwill visit to the lion's den. Or maybe the domestic version of a State Department engagement with a potential foreign foe.

While Vice President Al Gore was in Beijing meeting national leaders and encouraging good relations, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did much the same thing Tuesday with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms, R-N.C., on his own political turf.

Near the end of their day together, Albright said the two were "developing a pretty good friendship," and Helms declared in a joint news conference that he was ready to negotiate Senate ratification of a chemical weapons treaty _ one of the highest priorities of the Clinton administration. Until now, Helms has blocked the treaty, which is set to go into effect without U.S. participation April 29.

"If they sit down and be realistic about it, there's certainly a chance we'll get a treaty," said Helms, who has insisted on State Department and U.N. reform as well as changes in the treaty before he will let it go to the Senate floor for a ratification vote.

"It's an overrated treaty. It's not going to do one thing . . . to protect Americans," Helms said when asked about his previous rock-solid opposition. "It maybe has some good points that are sort of hard for me to find. But I'll go ahead and look for them, particularly with the secretary."

Helms said he would schedule a hearing on the treaty April 9, two days after Congress gets back from its spring recess.

In her address to Wingate University, where Helms attended school, Albright called for treaty ratification and dismissed complaints from opponents such as Helms that it is not verifiable and that nations such as Iraq and Libya will not sign.

"It's like saying that because some people smuggle drugs, there is no point in passing a law against drug smuggling," Albright said in her prepared remarks. "We can't let the bad guys write the rules."

But she complimented Helms for being open-minded, and she made a bid for bipartisanship, saying: "The ties that bind America are far stronger than disagreements over any particular policy and far more durable and profound than any party affiliation."

Earlier, she and Helms visited the Jesse Helms Center as she did her best to be nice to "Senator No," even holding his elbow at times. She gave him a T-shirt with "Someone at the State Department Loves Me" emblazoned on it.

The two come from very different perspectives. While Albright held academic salons and then gained acclaim as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Helms spent the past couple of decades questioning the value of contributions to the U.N., challenging ambassadorial nominations and griping about America throwing money "down foreign rat holes."

But by all accounts, the odd couple of U.S. foreign affairs get along. In fact, she visited North Carolina last year to see Helms, too.

"While Helms still holds strong views, he's mellowed a bit. He's no longer throwing bombs," said Thad Beyle, a professor of American government at the University of North Carolina.

As for the secretary, Beyle said, "The most impressive thing about Albright is she speaks so many languages. She can talk to anybody."