Shunned Packwood uses Senate as a hide-out

November 27, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- As the Senate was toiling through its final days of this year's session, Sen. Bob Packwood paced the floor of the august chamber like a caged animal.

Back and forth, in front of his antique desk, he strode. Up and down the aisle that divides Republicans from Democrats he walked, all the way to the back wall, by the cloakrooms, where his colleagues huddled in negotiation or gossip.

Odd that the Oregon Republican should seem like a captive in the United States Senate. Because, in a way, he appears to be hiding out there.

Mr. Packwood had been prepared to resign last week to avoid further investigation on sexual harassment charges by the Senate Ethics Committee. But he changed his mind after being served with a Justice Department subpoena; resignation would do nothing to stop an independent federal inquiry into possible criminal conduct.

"The subpoena changed everything," said a Republican aide familiar with Mr. Packwood's thinking. The senator, he said, concluded that if he couldn't escape the whole mess, the best place to try to ride it out was in the protective embrace of one of the world's most exclusive clubs.

Not that the climate there is very friendly any more for Mr. Packwood, who has spent the past 25 years as a member.

According to both Republican and Democratic sources, most of his colleagues share the view offered on the floor earlier this month by the Senate's senior Democrat, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, that Mr. Packwood should have the grace to leave before he further tarnishes the institution.

"Many senators were disgusted," said Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, referring to Mr. Packwood's two-day floor fight to withhold portions of his private diaries from the Ethics Committee.

Particularly embarrassing to some was Mr. Packwood's highly personal tale of a late-night encounter in his office with one of the women who would later accuse him of making unwanted advances. The unnamed woman gave him a hug and a kiss and told him he was wonderful, "warts and all," according to the senator.

Even Mr. Packwood's defenders, who say he deserves his day in court, expect him to quit the Senate before the Ethics Committee begins what are expected to be public hearings next spring on the sexual harassment charges that launched the initial probe.

But Senator Packwood is holding on as long as he can. His pocketbook, as much as his pride, may be among the reasons.

Never a rich man, the 61-year-old career lawmaker, who has five years remaining on his current term, continues to draw his $133,600 a year Senate salary.

The longer he serves, the larger his government pension grows -- today it would amount to nearly two-thirds of his current salary. That pension can't be denied him unless he is convicted of treason or endangering national security, according to the Senate disbursement office.

What's more, Mr. Packwood retains his power as the senior Republican on the influential Senate Finance Committee.

"There are things around here that just can't be done unless Senator Packwood signs off on them," said a committee staff member. "He can't be cut out of the action."

So the political contributions continue to flow from individuals and interest groups affected by the tax law that is the Finance Committee's chief province.

Dominating the committee's schedule next year will be consideration of the health care reform legislation, which has already produced an abundance of special interest spending.

But instead of going into Mr. Packwood's re-election campaign account, the donations are feeding his legal defense fund, which has received more than $275,000.

In addition, he retains the benefit of a taxpayer-financed staff, office and facilities, which serve him personally, as well as tending to the needs of his constituents.

There is also a bit of comfort for Mr. Packwood in the Constitution's "speech and debate" clause, which states that members of Congress cannot be prosecuted for their votes or for what they say in the course of official debates.

Those protections are very narrow and relate only to legislative activity, says Charles Tiefer, chief courtroom lawyer for the House of Representatives.

They did nothing, for example, to save former New Jersey Sen. Harrison Williams from being convicted on bribery and conspiracy charges in 1981 for agreeing to exchange legislative favors for financial gain in the ABSCAM case.

Even so, the limited immunity that senators and congressmen enjoy is more than the average citizen gets.

Critics say the senator is able to hang on to his power in a way that a private citizen, caught in a similar bind, could not.

"You can say what you want to about his getting his day in court, but if he were a corporate executive he would never be allowed to hang on like this," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat who heads the Congressional Women's Caucus. "A private company couldn't stand the hemorrhaging, the bad public relations."

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