On the surface, it looked like more bad news for Republicans: Two more women were lodging sexual misconduct allegations against one of the GOP’s most powerful lawmakers, Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon.
But look again. The latest development, which has delayed a committee decision on penalizing Packwood for at least a month, could be a boon for the GOP’s political agenda in the Senate.
That is because it makes it more likely that the Republicans will have the benefit of Packwood’s expert hand in forging welfare, tax and Medicare compromises during crucial weeks in September, before the start of the government’s new fiscal year Oct. 1.
In that sense, it plays right into the hands of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., who is banking on Packwood’s legislative skills to transform the Republicans’ promises into law.
The delay arose Thursday when the committee, after announcing it had concluded its inquiry, suddenly disclosed that two additional sexual misconduct complaints had been filed that would require more time to evaluate and investigate.
Earlier in the week, the committee reported it had completed its screening of “substantial credible evidence” that Packwood had molested 17 women and committed other breaches of Senate rules. Ethics Chairman Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced that the panel would release to the public all relevant documents in the case and make a recommendation for punishment to the full Senate.
The committee was hoping to recommend a penalty for Packwood by mid-August. One possible punishment would be for Packwood to be stripped of his chairmanship of the Finance Committee, which handles tax, trade, welfare, health and Medicare bills, among other things.
Now Packwood gets another reprieve in an investigation that already is in its 32nd month, strung out largely by the senator’s legal challenges to the committee’s authority to collect evidence in the case.
“I know it looks suspicious to the skeptical eye,” said one Senate Republican aide who has followed closely the investigation of the Oregon Republican. “I suppose one might question the coincidence. But Senator McConnell had wanted to get this case off his back and out of the limelight. It doesn’t exactly accrue to the benefit of the (Republican) party.”
But it is possible that the bulk of the political embarrassment and damage to the GOP by Packwood’s conduct has been done.
One of the two complaints filed belatedly with the ethics committee this week was first raised by the complainant, Celia Lighthill of San Francisco, about two months ago. She said then, in a news interview, that her encounter with Packwood occurred during a 1971 rafting trip on the Snake River in Oregon.
Lighthill, now 55, said Packwood suddenly grabbed her and kissed her on the mouth after the rafting party had gone ashore to camp.
The identity of the other complainant was not disclosed by the ethics committee. Her encounter with the senator apparently occurred in the early 1980s.
Neither woman had filed a formal charge against Packwood until this week, although the ethics committee staff had been aware of both of the alleged incidents before the charges were filed.
It was not clear whether, in reopening the case for these two incidents, the committee would seek lengthy depositions from the women, look for corroborating evidence and recall Packwood for further sworn testimony.
If it examines these complaints as thoroughly as it appears to have looked into the other charges of misconduct, final action in the case could be delayed until October.
If Packwood is stripped of his chairmanship, Delaware Republican William Roth would be next in line to run the committee. Roth has had less experience guiding major legislation through the Senate.