YOU have to feel sorry for Jim Sasser. After saying something stupid about Hong Kong, he was made to do penance by being recalled before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which must confirm him to the post of Bill Clinton's new man in Beijing. He duly repaired the damage over his remarks about 1997, convinced committee chairman Jesse Helms he would be tough enough on human rights, and received a back slap from both sides of the aisle. Nevertheless, Mr Sasser finds himself on the slowest boat to China in history. Indeed, the boat has not even departed from the Washington desk where he sits twiddling his thumbs. Sino-US relations are of enough importance to Hong Kong for readers to deserve to be acquainted with the real story behind why Mr Sasser has more than enough time on his hands to take extra Putonghua lessons. It would be serious enough were he the only nominee affected. But no less than 18 nominations are currently being held hostage in a bitter political row between Mr Helms and the White House. That's about 10 per cent of US embassies sitting with their most senior tenant absent. To many observers of either party affiliation, the isolationist and often xenophobic Mr Helms is not the obvious choice for the role of Capitol Hill's senior foreign policy spokesman. His gruff pronouncements on global affairs from Bosnia to Cuba usually have the pseudo-authoritative ring of pool players in a seedy blue-collar dive at three in the morning. Yet, by the miracle of the Congress' seniority system - which doles out plum committee chairs to long-serving members - this is exactly the post the axe-wielding North Carolinan finds himself in. With his constant opposition to administration policy, Mr Helms is a painful thorn in Mr Clinton's side. Yet he also has his uses - for example when a defensive Beijing attacks White House China policy, and Mr Clinton can point to Mr Helms and earn himself the kudos of being the lesser of two evils. The Democrats feared a foreign policy shipwreck when the Republicans won Congress last year and Mr Helms duly assumed the foreign relations throne. The 18 would-be nominations for ambassador have also seen their worst nightmares realised. If that were not enough, Mr Helms also has the power to block important arms treaties, which he is doing with the START II nuclear pact, and the pending Chemical Weapons Convention. Even when he was in opposition, the senator had a gift for blocking the committee's key business. He even did it to a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, in 1985 ironically, over a previous candidate for the Beijing job, Winston Lord. Mr Lord only received the support of Mr Helms when Mr Reagan agreed to stop funding programmes connected to China's one-child family policy. This time around, the reason for the impasse is due to Mr Helms' dream of putting an axe to foreign policy bureaucracy. In the summer, he unveiled a bill to dismantle the US Information Service. The service runs all domestic and overseas information and propaganda programmes, including the Voice of America; the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; and the Agency for International Development (AID), which distributes billions in foreign aid, often to countries and causes which the senator particularly despises. For example, he was furious when he discovered the Beijing Women's Conference, which AID had helped fund, had in its programme a workshop on 'flirting techniques for lesbians'. Essential functions performed by these defunct agencies would, under the bill, be taken on by the State Department, saving an estimated US$3 billion (HK$23.19 billion). Needless to say, the White House was horrified at such interference in the foreign policy arena, which it defends as its own constitutional domain. Vice-President Al Gore, who had already put forward his own much milder scheme for streamlining the State Department under his 'reinventing government' initiative, led the campaign to stop it. But such was Mr Helms' insistence on having his way that Democrats had to resort to the slimiest of tactics to head him off: they organised delaying tactics to stop the bill going to a vote. 'They want to play hardball, we can play hardball,' retorted the furious Mr Helms, setting up the various roadblocks which three months later, leaves Mr Sasser and his counterparts all packed up with nowhere to go. Embarrassed at having so many unfilled ambassadorships sitting like permanent snubs to the host nations, the administration has made some attempts to reach a compromise - or perhaps half-attempts might characterise them better. John Kerry, senior Democrat on the committee, came up with a deal which would instead save taxpayers US$1.7 billion and rescue the three agencies from the axe, while also giving the White House six months to come up with its own cost-cutting plan. A conciliatory Mr Helms actually agreed to this, only for the White House to stab Mr Kerry in the back and veto the idea. Now, every Republican committee member has declared their support not only for the Helms bill, but for his continued block on the diplomatic postings. Meanwhile, Washington cannot let Russia know it agrees to a crucial nuclear arms reduction deal, nor rely on a Beijing envoy to try to resuscitate the spluttering relationship.