THE South China Morning Post made a dramatic appearance on the floor of the US Senate as angry legislators ordered Washington's prospective Beijing ambassador back to explain controversial remarks on Hong Kong's electoral reforms. Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms, who only the day before had told former senator Jim Sasser to 'pack his bags' in anticipation of being easily confirmed to the post, had a change of heart in anger at comments the nominee made on Chris Patten's reforms and China's trading status. Democrats and Republicans, furious at Mr Sasser's claim that China was 'clearly not required' to retain the Legislative Council after 1997, contacted the White House to protest and sent the State Department scrambling to repair the political damage and reaffirm its support for Hong Kong. Senator Helms wrote to Mr Sasser yesterday to call him back for a second hearing to clarify two separate comments made during the first session - when Senator Helms was out of the room attending to other business. Apart from the Hong Kong question, also at issue was Mr Sasser's remarks that he had changed his mind from his previous position on voting in the Senate to condition Most Favoured Nation status on human rights issues, and now believed it should be delinked. Describing Senator Helms' about-face on the nomination as 'a hiccup' in getting Mr Sasser in place, a US official told the Sunday Morning Post: 'If he wants another hearing, we're more than ready, and Jim Sasser is more than ready to explain what he meant.' Senator Helms announced his decision on the Senate floor on Friday afternoon, holding aloft a copy of the Post's front-page story of Friday detailing Mr Sasser's Hong Kong comments, and asking that the article be entered into the Senate's official records. He told senators: 'Yesterday's comments by Mr Sasser, relating to the administration's position on China's threat to disband and abolish the Hong Kong Legislative Council, deserve a bit more comment. 'I do not challenge the opinion expressed by Mr Sasser on behalf of the administration regarding China's action. 'I wish to emphasise, however, that China is sweeping away every vestige of democracy in Hong Kong. 'It is a matter that deserves a somewhat more detailed understanding by Americans of precisely what is at stake in Hong Kong.' In his letter to Mr Sasser, Senator Helms said it was 'unfortunate' that he had been obliged to leave the confirmation hearing halfway through, after which the nominee made the comments under contention. Before he left the meeting, Senator Helms - a strong critic of China - had commended Mr Sasser for having voted six times during his Senate tenure to condition Most Favoured Nations status to human rights. Then, in his absence, Mr Sasser said he had changed his mind, and went on to comment at length that he now believed trading fully with China was the best way to improve human rights there. Congressional aide Bill Triplett, a China expert, said: 'People here are appalled by this. There's no support, either from Democrats or Republicans, for Sasser's position on Hong Kong.' The administration has been told that the nomination - which seemed assured - has no chance of going through unless Mr Sasser gives an acceptable explanation of where his comments stand in relation to US policy on Hong Kong. It is understood that Vice-President Al Gore, who appeared at the confirmation hearing in support of his old Senate colleague, was telephoned by senators on the issue. So great is Hong Kong's future of concern on Capitol Hill, that senators passed a unanimous resolution congratulating the territory on the success of last month's Legco elections. Hong Kong Democrats chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming helped fan the flames in Congress, faxing a letter to Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord in which he said the Sasser comments had 'caused a firestorm' in the territory. Mr Lee was last night unavailable for comment on the decision to recall Mr Sasser to explain. However, the Hong Kong Government's spokesman, Kerry McGlynn, said it was neither angry nor worried by Mr Sasser's remarks as they did not represent any change in America's position. 'Mr Sasser also emphasised that he was hopeful the Chinese would reconsider their decision to abolish Legco,' Mr McGlynn said. 'That has been the British Government position, the Hong Kong Government position and the American position.' The US official said the administration was surprised by Senator Helms' decision, and conceded that Mr Sasser had erred in getting involved in the British-Sino legal debates on Hong Kong, on which the US normally would not comment. Mr Sasser declined to comment on the matter yesterday. A date for the new hearing has not been set.