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Albright's Approach

It was so polite, so friendly, even cute.

This week's appearance by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was her 18th and, with Congress nearing the end of its session, likely to be Albright's last before, as she put it, "you head home and I apply for membership in what has heretofore been known as the 'fraternity' of former Secretaries of State."

The mutual admiration society that is the public face of Albright's dealings with Capitol Hill has always been a little, well, over the top.

Foreign Relations is chaired by Sen. Jesse Helms, the Republican from North Carolina, known in some quarters as "Senator No" for his opposition to foreign aid and many of the Clinton administration's foreign policy initiatives.

However, Helms has always shown a soft spot when it comes to his public dealings with Albright. Maybe it is Helms' courtly Southern charm.

"You're a great lady," Helms told Albright just after he gaveled the session to order and the C-Span cameras began to roll.

Maybe it's Albright's charming side, the one that saw her present Helms with a T-shirt inscribed "Somebody at the State Department Loves Me." That was in her first few months in office and she did it in Helms' backyard, after she spoke at his alma mater, tiny Wingate College. Some call Albright's attempts to court Helms a sign of good political skills, which she clearly has.

Albright has also taken the time to make personal appearances in the home districts of several other powerful members of Congress, including Representatives Sonny Callahan, R.-Ala., and Harold Rogers, R.-Ky., both of whom wield influence on the powerful Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R.-Ky., who watches over the Foreign Operations budget on the Senate side.

But has this charm offensive worked?

Congress agreed to such Clinton Administration foreign policy objectives as the expansion of NATO and passage of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It endorsed strong U.S. intervention in Kosovo, albeit under NATO, and supports Clinton Administration efforts to broker a Middle East peace deal.

Many of the problems conservative Republicans have with the U.N. have been addressed, including an agreement on repayment of past dues to the world body. Albright also worked with Helms and agreed to one of his pet proposals to reorganize the State Department by bringing other federal agencies under its wing.

Senior State Department officials say relations with Congress "are better than they would be absent her efforts" and that members of Congress "know she talks straight."

But even these officials concede the results of Albright's efforts to cozy up to powerful committee chairmen are "very intangible."

Senior staffers on Capitol Hill tell a different story.

"She lives in a cocoon," says one, who adds that Albright is convinced by all the nice things Helms says that she' in good standing with Congress.

Another staff aide said, "members feel like keeping their fingers crossed during negotiations" with the State Department. "It's almost 'Trust but verify,'" this staffer said, recalling former President Reagan's view of dealing with the Soviets.

Albright does seem to gain at least some benefits from her style.

Callahan did say, "Madeleine Albright has convinced me…this bill doesn't have enough money" during the mark-up session on the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill for FY 2001.

Of course, he was referring only to the extra $300 million he wanted to add, not to the $1 billion plus she asked for. At the end of her tenure, it's still only one penny out of every federal dollar that goes to foreign affairs spending.

When this week's hearing ended, Helms and Sen. Joseph Biden, D.-Del., the only two senators still in attendance at the time, led the applause for Secretary Albright. For her part, Albright curtsied and took a bow.

Everyone smiled, had a good laugh and Biden quipped that "surely no Secretary of State has ever curtsied before the committee."

Indeed, there is a first time for everything.

By CHARLES WOLFSON