FOR the last 33 months, there have been two distinct debates about Sen. Bob Packwood's conduct. In Washington, the discussion hinged on issues like privacy, partisanship, and historical precedent. The rest of America, meanwhile, was trying to figure out why the Oregon Republican hadn't been chased out of town.
This week, the Senate Ethics Committee gave its answer to both.
In a stunning unanimous vote, the panel's three Democrats and three Republicans recommended Senator Packwood's expulsion from Congress for actions they deemed ''reprehensible.''
By its action, the ethics panel tried to send disgruntled voters a clear message: Congress will no longer tolerate members that it deems to be unscrupulous.
The step might help restore some lost public faith in the nation's legislature at a time when half of all Americans believe its members are corrupt, say some expert observors.
''What they have done is historic,'' says Robert Bennett, a former special counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee. ''The committee has shown that it will hold its members to an ethical standard in accordance with the privileged position they hold. They have put aside their partisan feelings and upheld the integrity of the institution.''
Senator Packwood, however, strongly denies that his past actions merit such a drastic step. He condemned the expulsion vote as an ''unfair'' and ''outrageous'' ruling that would burden the institution in years to come.
Unless Packwood resigns, the full Senate will soon vote on the expulsion order. If 67 members approve, Packwood would become the first United States senator to be expelled since the Civil War and only the second member of Congress forced out for corruption.
The ruling comes at a time when Congress has become increasingly inclined to discipline its own. In the last 15 years, more members have been investigated and cited for misconduct that in the entire previous history of the institution.
''This ruling sends a strong message that the Senate is concerned about its image,'' says Michael Josephson, director of the Josephson Institute for Ethics in California. ''If you had asked me what the chances of an expulsion order were before this meeting, I would have said 2 percent.''
While he thinks the ruling was appropriate, Mr. Josephson worries that it might raise the ethical bar so high that some current members of Congress will resign, and other qualified candidates won't run at all.
THE problem, he says, is that Congress has more investigative resources at its disposal than ever before, and that in many cases, investigations uncover far more transgressions than they had set out to find. The Packwood probe, he notes, was initially concerned only with charges that the senator had made unwanted sexual advances to at least 18 women, most of whom worked for him.
''It's like trying to keep the IRS auditors away,'' Josephson says. ''If they start an investigation, they're liable to find something. Few people in public life would stand up to such intense scrutiny.... It could create a climate of fear.''
In his defense, Packwood echoes these concerns. He maintains that he should be allowed to face his accusers and should not lose his job over a series of alleged incidents that occurred as far back as 25 years. ''What is the signal here?'' he asked after the ruling. ''Are we going to say we're going to go back a quarter century? Maybe that's the signal we want to send. If it is, everybody ought to be forewarned.''
While the charges of sexual misconduct, which Packwood described as ''overeagerly kissing women,'' were indeed the initial reason for the investigation, the expulsion seems to hinge just as much on Packwood's alleged attempts to use his influence to find a job for his ex-wife and to obstruct the committee's investigation by ''withholding, altering, and destroying'' his diaries.
A statement released by the committee Wednesday said the diary alterations ''constitute a crime against the Senate and are reprehensible and contemptuous of the Senate's constitutional self-disciplinary process.''
Last month, in a vote that split along partisan lines, the committee honored Packwood's opposition to public hearings. But after new allegations surfaced, Packwood began asking for hearings. The main focus of Wednesday's Ethics Committee meeting, it was believed, was to decide this question.
Instead, the expulsion order both lifts the veil of suspicion from the ethics committee, and protects the Senate from the spectacle of another set of incendiary hearings akin to Anita Hill's testimony during Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court nomination process.
But Particia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, says the credit for the decision belongs less to the Senate and more to grass-roots pressure. ''The institution changes,'' she says, ''because the constituency changes and takes note.''
Indeed, the Senate had taken pains throughout the Packwood case to protect itself from further embarrassment. Soon after the scandal broke in 1992, the Senate Rules Committee met to discuss a petition from 250 Oregon voters who charged that Packwood's denial of the charges had robbed them of the right to an informed vote. Worried that granting this petition would provoke other voters to make similar claims, the committee threw it out.
In November, 1993, Packwood stirred up great anxiety in Congress when he hinted that his diaries contained sordid details of the sexual peccadiloes of other members.
But in the end, Packwood's apparent willingness to drag the Senate down with him inflamed the ethics committee and led to the expulsion ruling.
Ironically, the ruling comes at a time when Americans seemed to be slightly more forgiving of politicians' infidelities. While Gary Hart was ousted from the Democratic presidential race for a fling with a South Carolina woman in 1984, evidence of Bill Clinton's infidelities did little to derail his campaign. This summer, Hart has said that he was considering a Senate run because the electorate had ''grown up.''
But Josephson says Mr. Hart is only half right. The public has shown willingness to overlook weaknesses, he says, only if a politician acknowledges their wrongdoing and doesn't try to conceal anything. Packwood's biggest mistake, according to Ms. Ireland, was insisting that most of his sexual advances were ''just a kiss.''
Suzanne Garment, a fellow at the American Enterprise institute who has written a book about Washington scandals, says the expulsion vote should help to bridge the gap between the way scandal is viewed inside and outside Washington.