A troubled Senate, about to judge one of its own for the first time on sexual misconduct charges, voted largely along party lines Wednesday not to grant a public hearing to the 17 women who have leveled the incendiary charges against Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.).
By a 52-48 vote, the Senate reaffirmed a decision earlier this week by a deadlocked Ethics Committee and culminated an afternoon of debate redolent of the gender politics that last split the Senate in 1991, during the fight over the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas. He was narrowly confirmed after the Senate Judiciary Committee conducted nationally televised hearings to look into allegations by University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Faye Hill that Thomas had sexually harassed her.
The unsuccessful move to force the panel to open its hearings was led by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Recalling that epic struggle four years ago, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) fumed as she argued for public hearings on the Packwood case:
“Whenever women are assaulted, battered or abused, they are told to be silent.”
As in the earlier controversy, Mikulski said, the Packwood matter once more “raised questions whether this institution could ever deal with allegations related to sexual misconduct.”
Among the charges against Packwood are that he made unwanted sexual advances toward at least 17 women between 1969 and 1990, then sought to destroy evidence by altering his private diaries before they were subpoenaed by the Ethics Committee.
During the debate, all eight female senators spoke. In the end, all five Democratic female senators backed public hearings; they were joined by Olympia Snowe (R-Me.). Two other Republicans also voted with the Democrats: Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and William S. Cohen of Maine. The lone Democrat to side with the Republicans was Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, a close Packwood friend.
Near the end of the roll call vote, Packwood entered the chamber and, handed a copy of Boxer’s amendment by a GOP colleague, quickly voted no.
Boxer and her supporters portrayed the issue as one of public accountability, fairness and in keeping with the Senate precedent of hearing testimony in public session in every case that has reached the final investigative stage.
“The committee has always held public hearings,” said Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.), vice chairman of the ethics panel. He said there is “no compelling reason not to hold public hearings.”
But Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), chairman of the Ethics Committee, also cited precedent in arguing that never before has the full Senate interfered with an ongoing ethics investigation. He said that the Boxer amendment would “destroy the independence of the ethics process.”
Urging the amendment’s defeat, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) noted: “We have an investigation that’s in progress.”
But Snowe urged: “Let the sun shine in.”
Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) regretted that “an honest difference of opinion” had turned into a partisan brawl.
And just before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) expressed concern that the fight may derail the Ethics Committee’s effort to finish the Packwood case.
McConnell echoed those sentiments, saying that “friendships have been strained” and that “we’ve got to get ourselves back together so we can finish this case.”
But Bryan and Mikulski, also an ethics panel member, both voiced the belief that the matter can reach a conclusion despite the ill will that has surfaced.
After Boxer’s amendment was defeated, the Senate adopted a McConnell amendment by a vote of 62 to 38 that essentially preserves the Ethics Committee’s current procedures.
During more than four hours of debate, in which all six members of the Ethics Committee spoke, Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), an ethics panelist, accused Boxer of trying to “intimidate” the committee and said that her actions had “injected the ugly prospect of partisanship” into the already volatile proceedings.
The Ethics Committee, in a public statement, already has found “substantial, credible evidence” to support the charges against Packwood and it is now believed to be on the verge of deciding--and then forwarding to the full Senate--possible sanctions against Packwood, who is chairman of the Finance Committee. The potential punishments range from a simple reprimand to expulsion from the Senate.
Boxer’s amendment was offered to a pending defense authorization bill. It would have required a majority vote of the Ethics Committee to waive a public hearing in any case in which the committee has found substantial, credible evidence of a violation. Last week, the committee had failed to open the hearings on a 3-3 vote.
After her amendment’s defeat, Boxer declared: “The people of this country had a chance to see how the Senate does its business,” adding that she somehow intends to see that “justice [is] done for the victims.”
Boxer had argued that there are discrepancies in the testimony of Packwood and the depositions given by the women and said it was unfair for the women to be denied a chance to testify and be allowed to clarify the issues. Packwood testified to the committee behind closed doors at the end of June.
“It reminds me of a trial where only one side is heard,” Boxer said, calling that “a miscarriage of justice, any way you slice it.”
Mikulski, in an earlier interview, blamed the discrepancies at least in part on Packwood, saying that he had “a tendency to fog or fudge.”