WASHINGTON — The Senate, facing an unprecedented confrontation with one of its own members, Monday debated whether to go to court to force Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) to turn over hundreds of pages of personal diaries to its Ethics Committee, which is investigating allegations of sexual harassment and possible criminal wrongdoing.
After seven hours of often tedious debate over legal technicalities and constitutional questions, the Senate retired for the night, its leaders vowing to vote sometime today on whether to support the committee's effort to obtain the diaries by subpoena.
So sensitive was the issue, that no senator openly defended Packwood, although several raised legal points on his behalf. And while only a few indicated how they would vote, informal comments by others demonstrated that Packwood faces an uphill fight in his effort to persuade the Senate to side with him on privacy grounds.
"We are being tested here," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). "Let's tell the American people we are not going to cover up and we're not going to have a double standard."
Throughout the day, a visibly nervous Packwood pleaded for his colleagues' support, arguing in forceful style that requiring him to surrender the disputed pages of his diaries would violate his constitutional right to privacy and set a dangerous precedent. He even dangled hopes for a last-minute compromise in which an independent legal expert would review the documents and decide which ones were relevant.
"No one had ever seen them except the woman who typed them. . . . My former wife never saw them, my children, no other staff member," said Packwood in arguing to withhold the memoirs. "Is there humor in them? Sure. Are there nasty comments about some of you when I got mad at something? Sure. Are there warm comments? You bet. They're personal beyond all measure."
But members of the Senate Ethics Committee, which had voted unanimously to press its quest for the diaries with a subpoena, brushed aside Packwood's concerns--and apparently his offer of compromise--arguing with equal passion that nothing less than the Senate's integrity is at stake in the dispute.
"I deeply regret the necessity of being here this afternoon, but the actions of Sen. Packwood and his counsel leave us no alternative," said Ethics Committee Chairman Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.).
Gathered in solemn assembly, almost every senator listened in hushed silence to the debate--one most of them had hoped would not happen. Never before in its history had the Senate contemplated a court order to force one of its members to turn over documents requested by an investigative committee.
For several months, the Ethics Committee has been investigating allegations of sexual harassment against the 61-year-old Packwood. As part of that inquiry, committee counsel has been reviewing thousands of pages of his diaries, which initially were offered by Packwood to help prove his innocence. In the course of its perusal of the diaries, however, the committee uncovered what it said is evidence of possible criminal conduct and sought additional entries. But Packwood balked, claiming that the request violated his privacy and the committee voted to subpoena the material.
Last week, in what was viewed by some as a thinly veiled threat, Packwood disclosed that some of his entries contained information about the romantic lives of colleagues.
Undeterred, however, the committee proceeded with its request for Senate approval to go to court.
Although the initial investigation involved sexual harassment charges by two dozen women, there was almost no talk on the Senate floor of the senator's sex life--or any one else's.
"The allegations in this case are not the subject of today's debate," declared Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), vice chairman of the Ethics Committee. "Nor is the debate about the secret sex lives of the Senate--although that is bound to disappoint a lot of C-SPAN viewers out there. This debate is about whether the Senate Ethics Committee can fully obtain and review evidence."
Throughout the daylong debate, Packwood was alternately conciliatory and combative during exchanges with leaders of the ethics panel.
At one point, he tried to turn the tables and attacked Bryan, the mild-mannered chairman of the committee, asking: "You have enough information to call me a criminal?" Bryan replied: "I've never said that." Accompanied by two of Washington's highest-priced attorneys, Packwood accused the ethics panel of acting as "prosecutor, jury and judge" in his case. Later, he said he was "confused" about just what information the committee wants, although Bryan said that Packwood's lawyers were fully informed about the details.
But Packwood failed to shatter the united front of the three Democrats and three Republicans who voted to subpoena the diaries.