Clinton close to victory as trial heads for early finish

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AS THE US Senate continued deliberations behind closed doors yesterday, President Bill Clinton appeared to be cruising to a convincing victory in the final vote, which could be as early as today.

At least three Republicans broke the confidentiality of the Senate chamber to say they would vote against both articles of impeachment, raising the possibility that neither would attract even a simple majority.

Republican hopes of the two-thirds majority - 67 votes - needed to convict were dashed long since. But Republicans had hoped for a simple majority on one count or other as a way to salvage some pride.

Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, said the charges - perjury and obstruction of justice - were not proven, so he had to vote to acquit. He said many Republicans would concur. One was James Jeffords, of Vermont, one of the "moderate" Republicans courted by Democrats, who said that, while Mr Clinton had committed "shameful acts", they "do not reach the high standard of impeachment". The third Republican to break ranks was John Chafee, of Rhode Island.

The three senators gave reporters advance accounts of their contributions to the final debate, flouting the decision to close the debate to the public.

The Iowa Democrat, Tom Harkin, a sponsor of the failed attempt to open the debate to the public, went one better and delivered his whole speech to reporters.

He excoriated Kenneth Starr as "an out-of-control independent counsel with his own political agenda and a blank cheque to pay for it".

Before yesterday's session Trent Lott, leader of the Republican majority, said he was aiming to set the final vote for 5pm today. This was a day earlier than planned and allowed tomorrow to be held in reserve if there were still senators who were waiting to speak. Each senator had up to 15 minutes but most were said to be ignoring exhortations to speak more briefly.

The White House, sensing that the year-long torment of the President would soon be over, kept a low profile. The spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said they were not counting the votes, just harbouring "a fervent hope" for the President's acquittal. Just to be on the safe side, however, he reiterated Mr Clinton's readiness to accept a motion of censure if the Senate so decided.