WASHINGTON -- A divided Senate Ethics Committee voted along party lines late yesterday not to hold public hearings on the sexual misconduct charges against Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., setting up what could turn out to be a volatile debate on the Senate floor.
The committee split between three Republicans who opposed public hearings and three Democrats who favored them. The committee did agree, 6-0, to disclose virtually all information it has gathered in the case.
Committee members described the materials as thousands of pages of documents, including all depositions, affidavits, witness statements and even relevant excerpts from Mr. Packwood's own diaries, as well as his private testimony before the committee a month ago.
But the committee's most vocal critic, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said last night that she was not satisfied with the promised release of documents and that, as she has threatened, she intends to take the issue to the full Senate by offering a resolution on the floor calling for public hearings.
She said Mr. Packwood's accusers were being denied the same opportunity that he had to tell his story to the committee.
She said she was told that none of the women accusers will be allowed to appear before the committee. "What kind of justice is that?" Ms. Boxer said.
Among the charges against Mr. Packwood, the influential chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, are that he made unwanted sexual advances toward at least 17 women between 1969 and 1990, and then sought to destroy evidence by altering his private diaries before they were subpoenaed by the Ethics Committee.
As matters now stand, the committee has effectively ended the fact-finding phase of its inquiry and will begin to focus on the question of what sanctions, if any, to recommend to the full Senate. Potential punishments range from a simple reprimand to expulsion from the Senate.
Sen. Robert C. Smith, R-N.H., hailed the decision to release the committee's documents. "The key here is public's right to know," he said.
But Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., vowing to "press on" with the drive for public hearings, countered: "I don't view this [documents release] as public hearing by proxy."