WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bob Packwood, trying to escape the grasp of a widening ethics probe into his personal conduct, has maneuvered himself into the position of a hostage-taker who puts the gun to his own head.
The Oregon Republican, 61, has taken his Senate colleagues hostage by forcing them to publicly decide whether he must turn over thousands of pages of his private diaries. And he has raised the stakes by suggesting that some of their own sexual secrets could be revealed.
Most lawmakers are fervently hoping some compromise can be reached before the issue comes up Monday for a debate and vote that Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, predicted will be a "debacle."
After a nasty week of charge and countercharge between Mr. Packwood and the Senate Ethics Committee -- conducted in an atmosphere of back-room giggles, smirks and raging speculation both lawmakers and staff -- the Senate's only choice may be to give Mr. Packwood the public repudiation he has set himself up for.
"There is some real concern about privacy issues," said a Republican leadership aide. "But Congress has such broad subpoena powers that if it is asked to refuse to use them to police one of its own members, that's a tough vote."
Many of his colleagues are privately aghast that Mr. Packwood has created this spectacle, which has been Topic A in the Senate all week, dominating party caucus meetings and repeatedly interrupting business on the floor.
"I think he's crazy," said one lawmaker, pleading to keep his name out of it.
But Mr. Packwood, who has already spent nearly a year trying to function despite the taint of a sexual harassment scandal, seems to be relishing the confrontation.
"Packwood is a political animal of the first order, and he's prepared to fight with everything he's got," said a Senate staff member who has known the five-term Republican well for many years. "As sad as this is, and as ugly as it has become, I have to believe there is a part of Bob that is actually enjoying this."
He's certainly playing hardball in a frantic effort to prevent the original inquiry into his alleged sexual misconduct and intimidation of staff members from broadening into what Ethics Committee Chairman Richard H. Bryan, a Nevada Democrat, says now involves unrelated questions of "possible violations of criminal laws."
Thousands of pages
The sexual harassment charges, first leveled publicly shortly after Mr. Packwood's re-election last year, have been under quiet investigation by the Senate Ethics committee since February. Senator Packwood's dispute with the committee arose nearly two weeks ago during a painstaking review of the 8,200 pages of personal recollections he's been dictating every morning for 25 years.
Lawyers for Mr. Packwood and the ethics committee had been sitting side by side for days going peaceably through about 5,000 pages of the transcribed material, making copies of entries the committee staff deemed relevant to the inquiry. By mutual agreement, portions related to personal family matters, medical information and attorney-client privilege were masked with tape.
According to a statement issued last week by Senator Bryan, this review hit a snag when the committee lawyer came upon material in the 1989 and 1990 entries "indicating possible misconduct by Senator Packwood unrelated to the current inquiry."
Senator Packwood's attorneys refused to make any further diaries available for review unless additional material related to "political, campaign, staff or other activities . . . wholly unrelated to the sexual misconduct/intimidation" investigation could be masked.
The focus of the committee's expanded inquiry appears, from documents related to the case, to center on campaign financing and the senator's dealings with lobbyists.
When attempts at compromise failed, the five-member bipartisan committee voted unanimously Oct. 20 to subpoena the diaries. After Mr. Packwood refused to comply with the subpoena, the committee called on the full Senate Oct. 21 to seek a court order to enforce it.
Senator Packwood fired back with both barrels the next day, announcing through his attorney, James F. Fitzpatrick, that the committee was violating his privacy and that of "other persons."
Mr. Fitzpatrick noted, for example, that one of the diary entries sought by the committee included "a conversation with a senator about that senator's extended affair with a staff member and the problems of his divorce."
Another excerpt described "an affair by a Senate staff member with a member of the Democratic congressional leadership," the lawyer said.
"The secrets in that diary are safe with me," Mr. Packwood told his colleagues on the Senate floor Monday. "I have no intention of ever using this for blackmail, gray mail or anything else. But I want the Senate to clearly understand that it is the Ethics Committee that has demanded the production of the pages of the diary upon which is contained [this] information."
Fears that Mr. Packwood's own sexual relationships will be exposed prompted an unidentified woman from his past to call on the Ethics Committee yesterday to alter their subpoena to remove any reference to her from diary materials being sought.
Tactics raise hackles
Titillating gossip over what the diaries might reveal about lawmakers flagged Thursday after Mr. Packwood said he wanted to "ease the minds" of his colleagues by announcing the senator he named is no longer serving. And the House leader mentioned is widely assumed to be a man who was openly romancing a female Senate aide at a time when neither was married.
Even so, Senator Packwood's tactics were regarded by his fellow lawmakers as pure blackmail -- despite his denials -- and they backfired on him. Mr. Bryan was so angry, he went public Thursday with the charge that Senator Packwood was refusing to provide information related to possible criminal activity.
That charge provoked an equally angry complaint from Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, who protested that the committee seemed to have made a "prejudgement" about allegations that have not yet been publicly aired.
But neither Mr. Dole nor Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine have been able thus far to head off the clash Monday, or even limit the time and scope of the debate.
"The Senate leaders needed to call Packwood's bluff," said a Democratic aide. "If he wasn't a walking dead man before, he certainly is now."