Packwood seating is unchallenged Congress convenes today, but no senator commits to barring him over sex charges


WASHINGTON -- The Senate is poised today to easily turn aside a challenge to the swearing-in of Bob Packwood despite complaints that the Oregon Republican won re-election to a fifth term by denying sexual harassment charges he later acknowledged.

An intensive lobbying campaign aimed at 15 to 20 senators, including Maryland's Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, failed early last night to secure a commitment from even one senator to make sure the challenge is raised when the new Senate is sworn in at noon today.

"We do hope at the very least it will be noted that this challenge has been brought. But we don't have anyone lined up yet," said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, who was buttonholing senators at a round of opening session parties last night and was hoping to speak to Ms. Mikulski by telephone.

The Packwood seating challenge was one of several clouding what should otherwise be a day full of pomp and very little circumstance as the 103rd Congress convenes.

In the House, the Democrats were wrestling with whether to withhold newly approved floor voting privileges for Eleanor Holmes Norton, the delegate for Washington, D.C., and four delegates from territories, such as Guam and the Virgin Islands.

Also, Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., a member of the House Republican leadership, quit yesterday to protest what he called a "hard-right" policy of constant confrontation with the new Democratic president.

Ms. Mikulski was among those urging a full investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee when the charges against Mr. Packwood were first aired in late November.

But a spokesman for Ms. Mikulski said yesterday he didn't know whether the Baltimore Democrat had taken a position on the issue of allowing Mr. Packwood to take his seat.

The Senate doesn't have to act on the seating challenge unless a senator sworn into office before Mr. Packwood raises the question. The formal ceremony takes place in groups according to alphabetical order.

Short of turning the 24-year veteran out of office, the Senate could vote to seat Mr. Packwood on a conditional basis, pending further investigation. But even that seemed doubtful last night.

Several groups trying to block Mr. Packwood from being sworn in fear it will be much more difficult to remove him once he takes office.

Although the ethics committee is scheduled to investigate what the senator himself termed a pattern of "boorish" behavior toward women, the committee has a poor track record of disciplining fellow senators.

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, who has also been asked to deal with a seating challenge to Georgia Republican Paul Coverdell, sought guidance on precedents from the Senate counsel's office but wouldn't say last night whether he would personally intervene in either case.

Mr. Coverdell was the top vote-getter in a run-off election that toppled incumbent Democrat Wyche Fowler. The Democrat had won a plurality in the original Nov. 3 election but was forced into the runoff by a Georgia law requiring a candidate to win more than 50 percent in the first round. A challenge to Mr. Coverdell's seating, filed by a Georgia group, argues the Nov. 3 results should prevail.

A seating challenge is always uncomfortable for the Senate, which has not barred an elected member since 1974 when there was a dispute between two candidates in New Hampshire.

But the Packwood case is particularly sensitive for lawmakers like Ms. Mikulski who were outspoken in their complaints of the Senate Judiciary Committee's handling of sexual harassment claims made by Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas during his nomination to the Supreme Court.

According to published reports, Mr. Packwood not only denied the allegations of sexual harassment when first confronted with them before the election, but sought to discredit the women who made the charges before they became public.

A criminal complaint has also been filed with the office of the Oregon secretary of state, which has been asked to determine if Mr. Packwood committed election fraud, a felony.

There seemed little prospect last night that the new Congress would demonstrate today its election-time promise to change the way business is done in Washington.

The change in voting procedures sought by Delegate Norton apparently ran afoul of entrenched interests that resisted the addition of five mostly liberal Democratic votes when the House amends legislation as a "committee of the whole."

One leadership aide predicted last night a decision on the issue would simply be put off until the controversy raised by Republicans and conservative Democrats dies down.

Mr. Gunderson, who quit his post as chief deputy whip for the GOP yesterday, said he feared the more conservative trend on his side of the aisle was a change for the worse.

Mr. Gunderson, one of the last moderates left in the GOP House leadership, was appointed to the job four years ago by House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

"I'm an issue guy and a moderate," he said. "I don't want to be involved in behind-the-scenes strategy just aimed at blocking things and that serve the philosophical interests of people I may not agree with."

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