WASHINGTON -- Sen. Jesse Helms launched a filibuster Monday to block legislation for a Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, charging the civil rights leader associated with communists and used 'non-violence as a provocative act.'
'The legacy of Dr. King was really division -- not love,' the North Carolina conservative declared.
Helms, taking the Senate floor, also opposed the holiday on grounds it would be a burden to taxpayers. He estimated it would cost $4 billion to $12 billion to provide federal workers the additional paid holiday.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., angrily contradicted his assertions about the cost.
'Hogwash. That's hogwash,' said Kennedy, adding investigations have disproved claims of Communist ties to King.
'I will not dignify them with a response,' he said.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the additional holiday - on the third Monday of January -- would cost the federal government $18 million in lost productivity. Opponents cite a U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimate of $4 billion including private sector costs.
Kennedy challenged President Reagan to back the bill publicly.
'It's supported by millions of Republicans, Democrats and Independents in this country, so we have a right to know where you stand, Mr. President,' he said. 'Presidents and Congresses will come and go, but Martin Luther King and his dream will go on so long as there is an America.'
At the White House, where Reagan has taken a neutral stance on the bill, a spokesman told United Press International if the measure reaches the president's desk 'he will sign it.'
Helms' dogged opposition may keep the Senate from a vote until Friday or possibly beyond next week's congressional recess.
Senate GOP leader Howard Baker filed a motion to limit Helms' initial filibuster. If Helms pursues further delaying tactics, the Senate will have to approve another motion before being able to vote on the bill.
During his speech, the conservative southern senator denounced the slain civil rights leader for associating with communists and his 'calculated use of non-violence as a provocative act.'
'Dr. King's action-oriented Marxism about which he was cautioned by the leaders of this country, including the president at that time, is not compatible with the concepts of this country,' he declared.
'If Dr. King had these known associations with communists ... then to say this man was as pure as the driven snow is not a logical conclusion,' Helms told reporters later in the gallery.
Helms says colleagues tell him privately they cannot risk alienating blacks by voting against the bill, despite their concerns about its cost.
Ten thousand telegrams in support of the bill were sent to senators last month at the urging of black singer Stevie Wonder, who held a nationwide radio telethon for the bill. Coretta Scott King personally visited a number of senators to persuade them to endorse the holiday honoring her slain husband.
'I, for one, am not going to knuckle under to such intimidation,' Helms said. 'Too often, racism is used as a smear word.'
He shrugs off the political consequences of his filibuster in North Carolina where more than one-fourth of the population is black. Helms already faces a tough fight if he seeks re-election in 1984.
King's birthday Jan. 15 already is a legal holiday in 19 states. The House voted 338-90 Aug. 2 for the national holiday.
King was assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39 in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone to lead a march of striking sanitation workers. King, winner of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, was head of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference.