WASHINGTON — Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), isolated from even his strongest defenders in the Senate, bowed to mounting demands for his ouster and tearfully announced Thursday that he intends to resign rather than bring further disgrace to an institution that has been his life for 27 years.
"It is the honorable thing to do," Packwood said in his late afternoon announcement on the Senate floor that ended efforts to expel him. To the relief of many colleagues, Packwood's decision concluded a three-year drama that had become something of a public spectacle for a Senate grappling with its first case of sexual harassment involving a member.
Packwood stood virtually alone in his fight to keep his post, the last of his Senate defenders having turned against him in a remarkable 24-hour period that saw the Senate Ethics Committee first vote, 6 to 0, to recommend his expulsion and then release more than 10,000 pages of documents detailing the evidence against him.
The committee had concluded that Packwood was guilty of an array of sexual harassment and official misconduct charges that amounted to a "pattern of abuse of his position of power and authority as a United States senator." The documents contained many explicit descriptions of Packwood's alleged actions and they resounded loudly on Capitol Hill throughout the day.
Packwood's departure provided a solid victory for women's organizations and senators who had come to regard the case as pivotal in the fight against sexual harassment.
"The Senate has zero tolerance for this kind of conduct and should send a message to every woman in America that the United States Senate recognizes that this conduct is unacceptable and will exercise the ultimate sanction--this is the atomic bomb; we can do no more than to expel a member," Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.), vice chairman of the Ethics Committee, said before Packwood spoke on the Senate floor.
Packwood announced his intention to resign in a somewhat rambling speech during which he touted his achievements, reminisced about his decades in the Senate, and finally, wept. He did not give a date for his departure.
Afterward, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) urged the Senate to give his longtime friend and colleague "some reasonable time" to get his affairs in order and to pave the way for a smooth transition for his as-yet unchosen successor to the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee.
Senate sources said Thursday night that Dole was still negotiating with Democrats over Packwood's departure date, and added that Packwood is likely to be gone in two to six weeks. His departure is certain to hurt progress on a host of GOP legislative priorities--welfare reform, tax cuts and Medicare restructuring, to name a few.
Packwood's announcement climaxed a day that began when he appeared on morning television news shows to resist the growing clamor for his resignation.
A few hours later, however, Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), chairman of the ethics panel, and Bryan called a press conference to urge Packwood to resign.
"I think the evidence is compelling," McConnell said. "And it seems to me the appropriate response would be resignation."
McConnell said Packwood's attempt to alter his diaries and mislead Senate investigators was "an obvious violation" of the law and that the panel had referred the matter to the Justice Department for possible prosecution.
"We haven't received anything official yet but we will certainly take a look at it and give it a thorough and professional evaluation," said department spokesman Carl Stern. But he cautioned that prosecutors would have to show Packwood acted with criminal intent, a difficult standard to meet.
A funereal aura permeated the ornate Senate chamber as Packwood made his announcement. He struggled most of the time to keep his composure, at times speaking so softly that some colleagues in the back rows cupped their hands to their ears as they leaned forward to hear.
For the most part, Packwood recalled happier days--citing his efforts to fight for abortion rights, environmental protection, aid to Israel and his critical role in the landmark 1986 tax reforms.
Afterward, a number of GOP colleagues rushed forward to praise Packwood's service and the Oregon senator approached many of them to exchange hugs.
One particularly poignant moment came during an exchange between Packwood and Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Ida.), a member of the Ethics Committee. Afterward, they shook hands and hugged one another. Then Craig began sobbing and quickly strode into the GOP cloakroom, his hands covering his face.
There were also tears in two large sections of the visitors' galleries--packed with members of Packwood's personal staff as well as staff members of the Finance Committee.
In his talk, Packwood did not apologize. But neither did he attack his 19 women accusers or question the ethics investigation against him--as he had done as recently as Thursday morning.