Packwood is back with a health plan


Also Thursday, an article about Sen. Bob Packwood should have stated that the Senate Ethics Committee is investigating allegations of sexual misconduct against the Oregon senator. According to the committee, the focus of its inquiry into Mr. Packwood's behavior involves "allegations of sexual misconduct, attempts to intimidate and discredit the alleged victims, and misuse of official staff in attempts to intimidate and discredit."

The Sun regrets the errors.

WASHINGTON -- Six months ago, Sen. Bob Packwood was treated like a skunk at a picnic. Almost everybody on Capitol Hill ignored him in the hope that he would just go away.

Yesterday, the Oregon Republican was suddenly back in the limelight. Not as the alleged womanizer and sexual harasser who embarrassed his colleagues last fall with a sordid floor fight over his diaries. But as the ranking Republican member on a key Senate committee who spent an hour in the Oval Office presenting President Clinton with the first bipartisan compromise offer on health care reform.

"Isn't it extraordinary how things happen here?" remarked Josie Martin, Mr. Packwood's former press secretary, referring to life in Washington.

It's a town where time heals political wounds and where devastating falls followed by miraculous recoveries are becoming routine. Even a lawmaker so disgraced that he was publicly urged to resign by one of the Senate's most senior members -- Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia -- can become a media star if the time and the issue are right.

Mr. Packwood held a news conference yesterday in the Senate Radio and Television Gallery for the first time since the ethics scandal broke shortly after his re-election in 1992. All the questions were related to the politics and substance of health care reform and his meeting with the president.

Asked on his way out of the room whether he was pleased to get the focus off his personal life, Mr. Packwood sighed heavily and exclaimed, "Yes."

None of this means that Mr. Packwood has been politically rehabilitated.

According to polls back home in Oregon, more than 40 percent of thevoters still believe he should quit.

And his ethics troubles are still simmering away on two burners. The Senate Ethics Committee, which is considering harassment allegations against him by 28 women, is expected to hold public hearings on the charges at some point. If he is found guilty, Mr. Packwood could face some form of discipline from his colleagues.

More worrisome to him is a federal criminal inquiry that grew out of the sexual harassment probe. Federal prosecutors are investigating accusations that Mr. Packwood pressured a lobbyist to hire the senator's former wife.

It's not clear whether Mr. Packwood is as effective on the health care reform issue as he might otherwise have been.

A moderate Republican with a history of leaving party ranks on issues of strong personal concern, the senator has been an unusually loyal soldier so far in this debate. He has even abandoned his earlier support for a key feature of Mr. Clinton's bill that his Republican colleagues oppose: a requirement that employers buy health insurance for their workers.

"Sometimes I lay awake at night and wonder how things might have been different if Packwood hadn't felt he had to be careful for fear the Republican caucus would strip him of his committee post," said a staff member for another Republican senator.

Position in key committee

Mr. Packwood's post as ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee is worth everything to him.

It's the reason why he cannot be ignored by his colleagues, why Mr. Clinton has twice invited him to the White House for strategy sessions -- including the one yesterday with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Democratic chairman of the committee.

It's also the reason why lobbyists for a range of causes -- from health care to trade to tax law -- are contributing to Mr. Packwood's legal defense fund.

"As long as he's a ranking member of the committee, the simple fact is we can't do anything without him," Lawrence O'Donnell, the committee's staff director, said of Mr. Packwood months ago during some of his darkest moments.

Mr. Packwood, who aides say gets along well with Mr. Moynihan because both are cerebral and introspective, is working with the chairman to find a solution to the stalemate on the health care legislation.

But he seems to be blazing his own trail, moving to the right of the president and other moderate Republican senators but to the left of Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas.

The proposal he offered to Mr. Clinton yesterday calls for a health care reform that could be achieved entirely through voluntary means, but that would not guarantee the president's goal of universal coverage.

If, after a few years, greater competition in the health insurance market fails to make coverage available to all Americans, Mr. Packwood proposes that Congress should have to vote on whether to require employers to pay. Consideration would be handled on a "fast-track" basis, with a strict timetable and no amendments.

Mr. Clinton listened politely to the plan, the senator said, but complained repeatedly that the plan would force him to abandon the one issue the president has called non-negotiable: universal coverage.

Others saw the Packwood proposal as a sign of progress.

A positive sign'

"I think it's a positive sign that the president is meeting with Republicans," said Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat on the Finance committee who has been pushing a similar compromise proposal but one closer to the Clinton bill. "I think the Packwood proposal is worth looking at."

At least it succeeded in getting Mr. Packwood viewed in a different light for a while.

During one almost comical moment, Mr. Packwood was feeling loose enough with reporters to offer sympathy for Mr. Clinton's isolation in the White House.

"Poor devil," the senator said of the president.

That was the best they had been saying here about Mr. Packwood just a few political moments ago.

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