Senator fights for career over sex allegations: Packwood fights for his career while his colleagues risk accusations of voyeurism or arranging a cover-up

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THE normally impenetrable backstage dealings of Capitol Hill became public theatre yesterday as the United States Senate struggled to find a compromise to avert a showdown vote on seeking a court order to obtain the secret diaries of Senator Bob Packwood, struggling to prevent allegations of sexual harassment destroying his political career.

As the highly charged floor debate moved into a second day, the 61-year-old Oregon Republican offered to hand over to the Senate's Ethics Committee those parts of the 8,200- page diaries relevant to the allegations, involving more than a dozen women over a period of more than 20 years.

In a further concession, an emotional Mr Packwood said he would surrender extracts dealing with the allegations that he might have committed a criminal offence by offering favours to lobbyists in 1990 in return for a job for his ex-wife.

All this would be supervised by a neutral third party, who would decide whether the committee had been given all the material it needed.

But as the tense proceedings continued, it was anything but certain a deal could be reached. If not, the full Senate was expected to back overwhelmingly the committee's unanimous and bipartisan demand for a subpoena for the diaries, which date back to 1969.

At stake for Senator Packwood was the spectre of disgrace as he inveighed passionately once more against the iniquity of a 'fishing expedition' through his diaries that would violate his right to privacy.

So far the 90 senators present have mostly managed to keep discussions on a narrow legal track, thus averting their ultimate nightmare - a repeat of the live television confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas in 1991, and the sexual harassment accusations of Professor Anita Hill. 'We are not the select committee on voyeurism,' insisted Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, a member of the Ethics Committee.

But a cosy deal would open it to fresh accusations that a male-dominated club, indifferent to women's feelings, is staging a cover-up to protect one of its own. 'We cannot have one set of standards for 250 million Americans, and another for the 100 of us,' warned the committee's chairman, Richard Bryan.

The FBI is leading an investigation into the business dealings of an Arkansas real estate firm which was once partially owned by President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, according to newspaper accounts here which could turn into a substantial embarrassment for the couple.

The company, Whitewater Development Corporation, has come under scrutiny because of its links to a failed savings and loan (S&L) bank in Little Rock, under investigation by the Resolution Trust Company, the federal agency still clearing up the Savings and Loan crisis of the late 1980s.

Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have made clear that the Clintons themselves are not targets of the inquiry, which first came up during last year's Presidential campaign.

'It's an old story,' said the White House spokeswoman, Dee Dee Myers, yesterday.

In fact, the Clintons claim to have lost money on their investment in Whitewater. However, investigators are still trying to clear up whether deals involving Whitewater and the failed S&L were a cover to channel political funds to an apparently unwitting Mr Clinton during his 1984 campaign for the Arkansas governorship.