WASHINGTON -- The Senate Rules Committee unanimously dismissed a petition yesterday to unseat Sen. Bob Packwood for lying during last fall's campaign about accusations that he made aggressive sexual advances toward women.
The Rules Committee action, taken without debate, concerned the narrow issue of whether the Oregon Republican's election in November could be overturned on the grounds of fraud. "This doesn't mean we've dismissed the Packwood case at all," said Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican.
The 16-to-0 decision was a modest victory for Mr. Packwood, who faces a more serious challenge in the ethics committee. That panel is interviewing more than 20 women who have accused him of making uninvited advances, including fondling and kissing.
The ethics committee could recommend that the Senate censure Mr. Packwood, who eventually could lose his seniority or even face expulsion. Its deliberations are expected to last at least through the summer.
An Oregon group presented the Rules Committee with the petition, asserting that its state was cheated of a fair election because Mr. Packwood lied to reporters, delaying an article on the accusations. Had he admitted that he had harassed the staff members, lobbyists and others who are accusing him, the petitioners said, Oregonians would have elected Mr. Packwood's Democratic opponent instead. The senator won re-election with 52 percent of the vote.
Soon after the election, the Washington Post reported the accusations. Mr. Packwood made a public apology, but he has refused to discuss any incidents in detail.
Katherine A. Meyer, the lawyer for the petitioners, told the Rules Committee two weeks ago, "Mr. Packwood stole the November 1992 election."
Under the Constitution, the Senate has the power to investigate fraud in elections or qualifications of lawmakers. But members of the Rules Committee decided that it was impossible to gauge how many votes might have been changed.
"We can't look into the voters' minds," noted Sen. Wendell H. Ford of Kentucky, Democratic chairman of the Rules Committee, who along with other members made a distinction between the impact of a lie and more concrete forms of fraud, such as stuffing ballots.
While ethics committee investigators continue to interview Mr. Packwood's accusers, senators on the panel are debating whether to impose a statute of limitations in ethics cases.
Sen. Richard H. Bryan of Nevada, the Democratic chairman of the ethics committee, has argued strenuously against any statute of limitations.
But Mr. Stevens, an ethics committee member until he resigned from the panel Wednesday, has argued that the Senate ought to apply the same statute of limitations as the House, which is six years. Fewer than half of the incidents described by the accusers in the Packwood case, which spans 1969 to 1990, are said to have occurred over the past six years.