In this corner, Barbara Boxer

POOR BARBARA Boxer. The California Democrat is a voice in the wilderness known as the United States Senate, where guys named Kennedy have masters degrees in lechery and guys named Packwood have Ph.D.s in pawing.

Senator Boxer has been trying to force a public hearing on allegations of sexual and official misconduct by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood, R-Ore.


But Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, wants Ms. Boxer to behave. Among other things, Ms. Boxer keeps insisting that most ethics investigations have at this stage gone public by now. She points to Senate misconduct investigations of senators who had public hearings: Alan Cranston (1990-1991), David Durenberger (1990), Harrison Williams (1981) and Herman Talmadge (1979).

Ms. Boxer wonders -- and it's a good question to ask -- why Mr. Packwood seems to be getting preferential treatment by the committee over which Mr. McConnell presides. The preliminary inquiry into the Packwood case began in December 1992, the investigation began in May 1995 and so far there have been no public hearings and none are scheduled for Mr. Packwood.


"If all the other issues were dealt with in public, is it a signal that if the issue is sexual misconduct, you get the safe haven of a private club?" Ms. Boxer asked.

Ms. Boxer, among the handful of women to come to the Senate on the heels of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, is on a mission to expose Bob Packwood to the same public light. And that mission has annoyed Mitch McConnell to no end.

That was evident last Friday when the two verbally sparred on the Senate floor after Ms. Boxer, in a floor speech, threatened to force a vote this week on public hearings on Mr. Packwood. Ms. Boxer could introduce an amendment -- concerning the Packwood case -- as early as today or tomorrow, a Boxer aide said.

Mr. McConnell and Ms. Boxer have been at odds since the ethics panel found "substantial credible evidence" that Mr. Packwood may have broken Senate rules by making unwanted sexual advances to 17 women though 1990, seeking jobs from lobbyists for his former wife and altering diaries that were later subpoenaed as evidence in the case.

Ms. Boxer fears that, absent public hearings, as is customary for "substantial credible" findings, the Packwood case will fade from memory and women who accused him, including several who recently held a news conference in Washington, will be exiled to obscurity.

Said Ms. Boxer last Friday, "Because the Senate polices itself, there has been much debate over the years about how the Senate should address allegations of misconduct. As of today -- in what appears to be a break with well-established traditions -- no public hearings into this case have been scheduled."

Mr. McConnell, calling her pursuit, "frolic and detour," struck back. If the Senate debates open hearings on Mr. Packwood, he said, "I'll be prepared -- and I'm sure others will be prepared -- to discuss and debate congressional action on misconduct cases in the past and other relevant issues."

Is Ms. Boxer willing to risk pursuing Bob Packwood, thus allowing Mr. McConnell to open, for example, the long festering Kennedy-Chappaquiddick wound?


As Helen Dewar of the Washington Post reported, some Republicans believe "Chappaquiddick is relevant because the first sexual misconduct allegation against Packwood goes back to 1969." A woman drowned in a car driven by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy that year.

Mr. Kennedy would be a huge target if Mr. McConnell's threat is realized and so would other Democrats whose misconduct has come under fire since. Is Ms. Boxer willing to continue with her mission anyway? Said Ms. Boxer's communications director Michael Meehan, "She came to the Senate on the promise to shake the 'ol' boys club' and get rid of politics as usual, the back-room deals and she sees this as part of that."

Mr. McConnell, in a warning to Ms. Boxer, said, "We will not respond to any attempts to threaten the committee. If we open the door to that, there will be innumerable efforts to bring ethics matters to the full Senate. And that would be a dangerous road to take." So there.

Some Republicans -- as embarrassed as they are over the Packwood mess -- probably don't feel that the Oregon senator is worth having so much soiled senatorial laundry open to public inspection. It would be like the Clarence Thomas hearings all over again. Except that Mr. Packwood makes Clarence Thomas look saintly.

Said Ms. Boxer last Friday, "Opponents of public hearings in this case say that the allegations are of such an explosive nature that hearings would inevitably degrade into a circus-like atmosphere. I understand those concerns. However, I have confidence that the committee can discharge its responsibilities with dignity. And what is the message here? That the more embarrassing the charges are, the more a senator will be protected behind closed doors?"

Sure seems that way. Or, as an ad in the Washington Post expressed: "If your boss stuck his tongue in your mouth, would he keep his job? Only in the U.S. Senate."


Barbara Boxer has been warned -- in public and private -- to cease and desist. She is undeterred. And so, it seems, is Mitch McConnell. As they say in the boxing ring, "Let's get ready to rum-ble!"

Rhonda Chriss Lokeman is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.