Calls for Senate hearings on Packwood stir fears of replay of Anita Hill disaster


WASHINGTON -- For more than two years, the Senate has done its best to keep Sen. Bob Packwood's troubles on the back burner. But this week, they could be forced front and center, pushing the Senate into the last thing it wants: a replay of the Anita Hill disaster.

Mr. Packwood is the Oregon Republican who is alleged to have approached women he was attracted to by grabbing them unexpectedly, forcing himself against them and kissing them.

There were other accusations of official misconduct against the senator, including tampering with evidence, but they never caught the public imagination in the same way.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a determined California Democrat, has vowed to circumvent the Senate Ethics Committee, where Mr. Packwood's case has stalled, and force the full Senate to vote this week on whether to hold public hearings into the accusations.

But Mrs. Boxer might not have the chance. Republican leaders are doing everything they can, including threatening her on the Senate floor, to head her off.

The mere thought of public hearings has many senators apoplectic. They may want to protect one of their own, yet they also are concerned about not appearing to be covering up possible wrongdoing.

Even more threatening is the memory of the Senate's disastrous experience with Ms. Hill in 1991 and the spectacle she triggered during hearings on Judge Clarence Thomas' confirmation as a justice of the Supreme Court.

Almost no one on Capitol Hill can imagine the Senate's again submitting itself to the kind of ridicule it invited as a panel of white men dismissed the accusations of sexual harassment brought by a black woman.

By the same token, the Senate does not want to suggest that it learned nothing from that experience. Senators fear that if they brush aside accusations involving women and sex, they could pay a political price at home.

The Anita Hill experience is also driving Mrs. Boxer. She rode into office in part on the backlash created by the Senate's treatment of Ms. Hill, declaring then, as now, that the Senate "is not a private club."

Mrs. Boxer says that she and the other seven women among the 100 senators "have an obligation not to forget what got us here in the first place." Five of the seven -- all but Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, both Republicans -- support Mrs. Boxer's call for public hearings.

Mrs. Boxer says the Republicans want to avoid hearings because they do not want to demonstrate to voters that the Senate remains a mostly male club that still "doesn't get it" and therefore needs more female members. "That's their biggest nightmare," she said. "Getting more women like us."

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