Packwood resigns as panel head

September 09, 1995|By Los Angeles Times Sun staff writer Lyle Denniston contributed to this article

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bob Packwood, caving in to Democrats incensed by his continued leadership and even presence in the Senate, stepped down yesterday as chairman of the powerful Finance Committee and agreed to leave the chamber altogether by Oct. 1.

Both decisions were recommended by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., who had argued as recently as Thursday night that the Oregon Republican deserved 60 days or more to get his affairs in order before quitting the Senate.

Sen. William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., 74, will succeed Mr. Packwood as chairman of the powerful finance panel.

In Mr. Roth, the committee will have a leader who has supported a number of Clinton administration priorities and who is expected to improve chances that the Senate will pass the tax-cut package already approved by the House. Mr. Packwood has been wary of the tax-cut proposals.

Yesterday's announcement about Mr. Packwood's departure ended a second straight day in which the Senate was roiled by the controversy surrounding him.

Mr. Packwood, 62, announced his resignation Thursday after the Senate Ethics Committee capped a three-year investigation by unanimously recommending his expulsion for sexual and official misconduct. He did not specify a departure date.

Mr. Dole, however, said hours later that Mr. Packwood should be given 60 days or "whatever it takes" to finish up before leaving the institution he has served in since 1969.

That timetable infuriated many Democrats, who found it unacceptable that Mr. Packwood would remain in charge of managing the important welfare reform bill now pending before the Senate.

Yesterday morning, Democratic senators, many of whom oppose the GOP version of welfare reform, were incensed to find Mr. Packwood sitting in the chair normally reserved for the senator who will manage the bill on the floor.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota reacted swiftly, telling reporters that Mr. Packwood must step down immediately as chairman of the Finance Committee and leave the Senate within a couple of weeks. Without a timetable, some Democrats were prepared to force a vote on his expulsion next week.

Mr. Dole moved quickly to defuse the issue, announcing that six other GOP senators would alternately manage the welfare reform bill. He announced hours later that Mr. Packwood would quit the Senate by the end of the month.

The Democratic pressure demonstrated once again that the Packwood case has aggravated relations between the two parties in the Senate.

"This is unseemly," fumed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., referring to the Democratic pressure tactics. "It's like rubbing salt in a wound," said Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minn.

But Sen. Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., countered: "A lot of us thought he resigned yesterday. What was he doing out there on the floor managing a bill?"

Such an arrangement would be "absolutely inappropriate given the fact that he has now resigned under a toxic cloud," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., a member of the Ethics Committee that investigated his case.

The Clinton administration also got into the act, with White House spokesman Mike McCurry telling reporters that "it would complicate the work of Congress if a senator who has resigned is in control" of the Finance Committee.

Mr. Packwood's resignation will not put an end to his potential legal troubles. Ten weeks after clearing the senator in one criminal investigation, the Justice Department has begun a new inquiry -- on a possible evidence-tampering charge -- at the request of the Ethics Committee.

The committee asked the Justice Department to look into whether Mr. Packwood had destroyed or altered the sound tapes or written transcripts of his personal diaries, which the committee had demanded during its investigation of his conduct.

Also yesterday, the Congressional Accountability Project, a watchdog group headed by Ralph Nader, urged the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate whether Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, violated federal campaign laws. The group said Mr. Packwood's diaries raised questions about Gramm's fund-raising practices.

Mr. Gramm, a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, denied any wrongdoing in a letter to the committee.

The diary entry suggested the two senators may have broken campaign financing laws during a meeting to discuss $100,000 in contributions to the Oregon Republican Party.

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