WASHINGTON — WITH the memory of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings hanging heavy over the chamber, a grim-faced Senate has plunged deep into the case of Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon and his diaries.
It is a no-win situation for all concerned.
The Senate ethics committee, which is investigating charges that Senator Packwood sexually harassed two dozen women over several years, had subpoenaed the diaries after Packwood withdrew committee access to them.
Sen. Richard Bryan (D) of Nevada, the committee chairman, said access was necessary to look into ``possible violations of criminal laws'' that had been turned up in an early reading of the diaries. Packwood and his lawyer have complained that the committee was on a ``fishing expedition'' that violated Packwood's right to privacy.
But for lawmakers, who focused on the Packwood mess Nov. 1-2, the conflict revived the perennial question of whether the Senate is capable of maintaining its own increasingly high ethical standards.
``A lot of people - in the media, in the public - think that we can't handle the job of disciplining our fellow members and guarding the integrity of this institution,'' said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky. ``I don't believe that.''
If the Senate voted not to support the committee's request to go to court to force Packwood to allow access to the diaries, it could be accused of covering up the actions of a fellow senator. But if it voted to support the subpoena, as it was expected to do, the Senate would be allowing its ethics committee unprecedented access to a member's personal writings. That prospect has sent a chill through all the Senate's diary-keepers.
The Senate's six-member ethics committee, split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, voted unanimously to take the matter to court if necessary. The weight of that unity made it difficult for other members to side openly with Packwood, even though some senators have suggested the scope of the subpoena is too wide.
On the Senate floor Nov. 1, Senator McConnell took Senator Bryan, the committee chair, to task for raising the allegation of possible criminal violations by Packwood without any clear substantiation. Last week, Senate minority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas called on the ethics committee either to make a formal charge or drop the subject.
Some senators resented the distraction from the more important matters of the day, such as health-care reform and the North American Free Trade Agreement. But all agreed, with no great enthusiasm, that the situation had to be settled before they could credibly resume their roles as legislators.
The Packwood situation is unprecedented in another regard: It is the first time a senator under scrutiny by the ethics committee has refused to go along with a request for a document. Packwood has a powerful ally in the American Civil Liberties Union, which released a statement supporting his view that being forced to show his diaries to the committee would violate his Fourth Amendment right to privacy.
Packwood reiterated the ACLU's argument on the Senate floor: ``The committee acts like a grand jury. But it more accurately acts like a prosecutor, jury, and judge. They gather the evidence. They review the evidence. They weigh the evidence. The committee looks at it, and they make the decision.'' The ACLU argues that an independent party needs to be brought in to determines whether information from the diaries can be used.
During the debate, Packwood suggested a solution could be found if his lawyers could be informed of the specifics of the possible criminal charges that Bryan had raised. Packwood maintains he does not know what a committee staff aide found in the diaries that raised the question of possible misconduct.
For Packwood, there is little to lose in the battle with his colleagues. He has already admitted to making inappropriate sexual advances to women over the years and will face whatever punishment the Senate chooses to mete out.
Packwood has five years remaining in his current Senate term, and he appears set to stick it out and ignore continuing calls from constituents that he resign. The Senate has the option of expelling him for his conduct, but a sanction that extreme is highly unlikely. And if Packwood can generate sympathy from an appearance that his colleagues are going after him, he boosts his case for a light punishment.