THIS week the United States Senate set aside pending matters of state - the North American Free Trade Agreement, the President's Health Care Bill - to debate something really important. So important in fact that the majority leader invoked a rarely used rule to command the attendance of all his colleagues. What, you ask, is urgent enough to pre-empt the normal functioning of the upper chamber of Congress? Have 250,000 postal workers gone on strike? Did Mr Clinton declare war on Canada? Is Alaska seeking to secede from the Union? None of the above. Our elected law makers, dedicated servants of the commonweal, have been called into special session for a higher purpose: to discuss whether or not to subpoena the private, possible X-rated diaries of one of their members accused of making aggressive and uninvited sexual advances on his staff. I'm not joking. The most powerful legislative body in the world has spent two days, and counting, summoning the courage to endorse the unanimous recommendation of its own ethics panel that Senator Bob Packwood be forced - by a Federal court order, if necessary - to hand over his personal diaries for scrutiny. It didn't take the Senate that long to endorse the US war against Iraq. Let's back up a little. Shortly after the Oregon senator was re-elected last autumn, the Washington Post reported that 25 women had accused Mr Packwood of sexual harassment, and of using his power to intimidate the objects of his misguided desire into silence. At first, he denied having done anything improper. But when it became apparent that the controversy was not about to blow over - the once-popular senator could hardly make public appearances in his own state due to angry protests - he finally issued a blanket confession and apology. With that, the 61-year old Mr Packwood returned to business as usual (minus, one presumes, the monkey business). He steadfastly refused, and continues to refuse, to resign. Enter the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, whose unpopular job it is to investigate allegations of improper conduct against peers. While questioned under oath, Mr Packwood revealed the existence of his voluminous daily diary to the committee, and agreed to show passages relevant to the charges against him. Through his lawyer, he yielded some 5,000 pages. So far so good. But when the ethics committee stumbled across an allusion to possible criminal conduct completely unrelated to the sexual harassment charges, Mr Packwood stopped co-operating. The bi-partisan committee, in turn, voted unanimously to subpoena the documents, no doubt hoping and expecting that the senator would cave in to their demand. He did not, and that was a problem of unprecedented proportions. Never before in the history of the ethics committee had a target of investigation refused to yield documents, not even Joe McCarthy, the anti-communist heretic hunter. But Mr Packwood went farther than that. In a move that can only be described as blackmail, he told his colleagues on the Senate floor that other senior legislators would be compromised if his diaries became public. Mr Packwood's bare-knuckled threats seem to have enraged the chairman and co-chairman of the ethics panel, both of whom demanded that he apologise. He did, after a fashion, but his point had been made. The veteran senator from Oregon has also protested that a subpoena of his entire diary - more than 8,000 pages - would constitute an intolerable invasion of privacy. That's an arguable point, and raises enough legal questions to keep a dozen lawyers busyfor years. It probably will if Mr Packwood fulfills his promise to press his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the full Senate must decide whether to back up its ethics committee and vote in favour of the subpoena. In the court of public opinion, Mr Packwood's peers face a no-win situation. If they seek a court order, the Senate will be portrayed as a prying, bullying Goliath to Mr Packwood's stubborn David. The right to privacy, especially from the government, is one right Americans will fight for. If, on the other hand, the Senate lets their wayward colleague off the hook, ''real people'' - that is how Washington-types refer to Americans living outside the Beltway - will see it as more evidence of Congressional spinelessness. Feminists will see itas Chapter Two of the Anita Hill hearings. And Ross Perot will make hay till the cows come home. Witch-hunt or whitewash, take your pick. By my reckoning, the Senate has already shot itself in the foot by putting the nation on hold while they bicker endlessly over whether to slap a would-be Don Juan on the wrist. As for Mr Packwood, he should quit while he is ahead. In light of what he has already admitted to, his every parry and thrust only confirms that this is a man whose skewed judgment is incompatible with the office he holds.