WASHINGTON -- Concluding a nasty debate, the Republican-led Senate voted yesterday to protect Sen. Bob Packwood from having to face his accusers at public hearings on charges that he made unwanted sexual advances toward more than a dozen women.
On a mostly party-line tally of 52-48, the Senate defeated an effort led by five female Democratic senators to overrule the Senate Ethics Committee. On Monday the committee rejected the idea of holding public hearings in the case against the Oregon Republican after deadlocking, 3-3, along party lines.
The Democratic senators, led by Barbara Boxer of California, argued that it was unfair for the committee to hear Mr. Packwood's side of the story without listening to the personal accounts of his accusers.
But Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole charged that Mrs. Boxer was seeking only to embarrass the Republicans with the alleged misdeeds of one of their senior members, who is now the influential chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
"If we don't believe in the integrity of the Ethics Committee, why don't we abolish it?" Mr. Dole said sarcastically. "Why don't we turn it over to the senator from California?"
Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who is chairman of the Ethics Committee, pointed out that the full Senate had never before intervened in the highly sensitive and politically painful decisions of the Ethics Committee and argued that this was not the time to violate the committee's independence.
But Democrats argued that by upholding the committee's split decision, the Republican-led Senate broke another precedent.
"There has been no exception to holding public hearings in any major ethics case this century," said Sen. Richard H. Bryan of Nevada, vice chairman of the Ethics Committee.
In its first-ever case of alleged sexual misconduct, the Senate has confined the complaints of Mr. Packwood's accusers to sworn depositions rather than to personal appearances before the committee.
"This is the first time victims have come forward and asked us to listen to them, to allow them to tell their story," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, one of the three Democratic members of the committee who pushed for public hearings. "I have never met these women. I do not want their stories filtered."
Only three Republicans supported public hearings. They were Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and William S. Cohen of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a presidential contender who is promoting himself as a moderate on women's issues.
The only Democrat to desert the fold was Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, a close friend of Mr. Packwood who serves with him on the Finance Committee.
Mr. Packwood himself voted yesterday to block public hearings, and Senator Mikulski said after the roll call that she was surprised he had taken part in the vote.
After an investigation of more than 2 1/2 years, the Ethics Committee is still trying to reach a final determination about Mr. Packwood on charges that came to light shortly after the 1992 elections, when the senator won a fifth term.
In May, the committee announced its preliminary finding that there was "substantial and credible evidence" of misconduct by Mr. Packwood involving 18 instances in which he allegedly forced himself on 17 women over a 20-year period.
In addition, the committee found evidence that Mr. Packwood might have been guilty of obstructing the committee's investigation by tampering with entries in his personal diary that might have supported the women's charges.
Further, the committee found evidence that Mr. Packwood might have abused his Senate office by pressuring a lobbyist with business before his committee to provide a job for the senator's former wife, saving Mr. Packwood alimony payments.
Mr. Packwood, who has denied anything more than "boorish" behavior, was offered a chance to face and cross-examine his accusers at a public hearing. But the senator chose instead to give his account to the Ethics Committee behind closed doors.
He did not speak for himself on the Senate floor yesterday.
For weeks, the three Republicans on the Ethics Committee resisted efforts by Ms. Mikulski and Ms. Boxer to persuade the committee to hold public hearings.
Mr. McConnell reportedly threatened that if Mrs. Boxer pursued the issue on the Senate floor, he would open public hearings on the past or present alleged misdeeds of a variety Democratic senators.
Nonetheless, Mrs. Boxer persisted, offering a proposal yesterday that would require that public hearings to be held in all ethics cases unless a majority of the committee decides otherwise.
The outcome of yesterday's vote was never in doubt. But it provided a striking contrast with the last time the full Senate became entangled in the Packwood case, when an overwhelming bipartisan majority voted to force Mr. Packwood to turn over his diaries to the Ethics Committee.
But in that case, the Senate was upholding the committee, not challenging its decisions.
Participation in yesterday's debate was limited to members of the Ethics Committee and a handful of other senators, with most of them leveling charges that one side or the other was politicizing the process.
"Do we want to allow for raw power to determine whether we air these allegations in public or let them be covered up?" said Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, an Illinois Democrat. "I don't believe the members of this body want to be seen as participating in a cover-up."
Sen. Hank Brown, a Colorado Republican, countered that Ms. Boxer's proposal "is not about openness: This motion is about partisan gamesmanship, and it's a disservice to the past."
Mr. McConnell said public hearings would also delay by more than two months a process that may be soon near completion. So far, the committee has heard 264 witnesses, read 114 sworn depositions, combed through 16,000 pages of documents and spent 1,000 hours in meetings. The panel has agreed to make all its documents public.
"There's no question that we've been feeling the strain," the chairman said. "After this unfortunate floor proceeding, I hope we'll be able to come back together and get this job done."