Packwood: a Pound of Flesh

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So Sen. Bob Packwood, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, persistent champion of the feminist agenda and assorted women's causes, moderate Republican in the forefront of the fight against the extremist Gingrich agenda, lately a rare GOP advocate for Dr. Henry Foster's confirmation as surgeon general, also one of the few male senators to vote against allowing Tailgate-tainted Adm. Frank Kelso to retire with full honors -- this same Bob Packwood now has to appear before a Senate Ethics Committee that has found "substantial cause" that he may have abused his office through sexual misconduct from 1969 to 1990.

The case raises profound choices for women's rights organizations. Do they acquiesce in Mr. Packwood's serving out his full term, this on the theory that he supports issues they hold dear, or do they continue to push for the punishment the Senate and the courts may mete out anyway?

Last year, when Mr. Packwood was merely ranking minority member of the tax-writing finance panel, sentiment was overwhelmingly for punishment in feminist ranks. "It's time to put ethics in front of politics and take our allegations seriously," said Mary Heffernan, a former lobbyist for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and one of 29 women who brought charges against the Oregon senator.

Perhaps that sentiment still prevails. But if Mr. Packwood is bounced as Finance Committee chairman, he would likely be replaced by Sen. William Roth of Delaware, whose voting record is twice as conservative as Mr. Packwood's. This could have a severe impact on legislation emerging from the GOP-controlled 104th Congress. If Speaker Newt Gingrich prevails, many tax, welfare, health and social services programs important to the liberal women's movement could be affected adversely.

The senator, who stubbornly rejects demands that he retire, has welcomed the chance to defend himself before the Ethics Committee. He may still face a Senate "trial" that could lead to everything from reprimand to loss of his chairmanship to expulsion. In addition, grand juries are looking into allegations that he altered diaries that have been grudgingly turned over to the committee and perhaps used his office to get his ex-wife employment that would reduce his alimony payments.

The women's movement has to ask itself how much Senator Packwood should suffer. He has admitted improper conduct, described himself as an alcoholic on "Larry King Live," submitted to psychiatric treatment and spent so much money on lawyers' fees that he claims he is "essentially bankrupt." The proverbial pound of flesh. He seems willing to accept almost any kind of humiliation so long as he can hold onto power.

Reality suggests that Mr. Packwood is a senator strategically placed to moderate the Gingrich revolution. His case has helped make sexual harassment a no-no. The educational mandate has been served. Enough is enough.

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