Clinton faces day of destiny

The President's legacy hangs in the balance as his supporters struggle to win an alternative punishment. Mary Dejevsky reports
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The Independent Online
THE JUDICIARY committee of the US House of Representatives yesterday approved the fourth and last article of impeachment against President Clinton, alleging that he abused the power of his office when he tried to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

The four articles, which also include two of perjury and one of obstruction of justice, now go to the full House for a debate and vote on Thursday or Friday. Approval of any or all of the articles would make Bill Clinton only the second President in US history to be subject to a Senate trial that could, in theory, remove him from office.

Disconsolate Democrats on the judiciary committee, recognising that they were powerless to block the articles of impeachment at the committee stage, did their best to disrupt proceedings with numerous points of order and personal objections. The senior Democrat, John Conyers, even accused the Republicans of using their majority to orchestrate something akin to a coup against an elected President.

Mr Conyers, the only member who also sat on the judiciary committee during the Watergate hearings 24 years ago and one of the most faithful Clinton supporters, said: "This does sometimes begin to take on the appearance of a coup. It's staggering. It's frightening." To which a Republican, Ed Bryant, retorted: "This is the orderly process of the Constitution, not troops in the streets."

The White House responded to the passage of the four articles of impeachment within minutes, fielding Gregory Craig, recently appointed as special White House counsel, to deplore the committee's action. Mr Craig, who is by common consent the most cogent and telegenic of the President's advocates, lambasted the committee for what he called its partisanship and warned that if the impeachment process continued, it could divide the country.

Mr Clinton, meanwhile, accompanied by his wife and daughter, was well on his way to Tel Aviv, the starting point for his pioneering visit to Jerusalem and Gaza. His last-minute intervention the previous day, when he had made a nationwide television broadcast from the White House Rose Garden at less than half an hour's notice to offer a new apology for his conduct, was widely dismissed - even in the pro-Clinton media - as too little, too late, and perhaps even as counter-productive.

The chairman of the judiciary committee, Henry Hyde, said that, in his view, President Clinton's expressions of remorse were "inadequate to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish. People were waiting for more." Republicans are insisting that Mr Clinton must acknowledge having lied under oath before they will broach any modification in their demands for impeachment. Mr Clinton's lawyers, however, see this as a trap, and he has consistently stopped short of admitting what would be the crime of perjury, lest he inadvertently strengthen the case for impeachment and lay himself open to eventual prosecution.

The next crucial hurdle for the President is this week's vote, when the 435 members of the House of Representatives, who have been recalled to Washington, will consider each of the four articles of impeachment. Although the Republicans have a majority of 21 in the outgoing House, some Republicans, especially from northern constituencies are under pressure to oppose impeachment, while a few Democrats, mostly from southern constituencies, are pressed the other way. The uncertainty of this vote has preoccupied the White House throughout the judiciary committee hearings, and each side has accused the other of unsavoury arm-twisting tactics to influence the result.

There was also the question of whether Mr Clinton might make another broadcast to the nation on his return from the Middle East, or whether he would try to counter impeachment worries in Washington with a virtuoso performance of statesmanship in Israel and Gaza. The degree to which his travels would displace the impeachment process from television screens back in the United States, however, was uncertain. Past foreign trips at critical junctures in the Monica Lewinsky affair have been eclipsed or obscured back home because questions from the US press corps travelling with the President have been dominated by events in Washington.

Until two weeks ago, the White House had appeared stoical about the prospect of a Senate trial as the narrowness of the Republican majority in the Senate and the constitutional requirement for a two-thirds majority make it highly unlikely that Mr Clinton would be convicted. But the readiness of the White House and Congressional Democrats to countenance such a trial now seems diminished. A trial could last several months and - the Clinton camp now argues - disrupt the smooth running of the country, undermine US effectiveness abroad and unsettle the stock markets.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by more than 200 points in the last two days of trading last week, a fall for which there was no other explanation than worries about the presidency.

What is unclear is whether scare stories about the effect of a trial are designed primarily to discourage waverers from voting for impeachment in this week's Senate vote, or whether there is real fear of the disruption a trial could cause: fear that could perhaps stoke pressure for the President's resignation.

The path to

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THE FULL House of Representatives (435 members) has been summoned back to Washington on Thursday to debate the articles of impeachment against the President. If even one article is approved by a simple majority - and the vote is still too close to call - Mr Clinton must stand trial by Senate. The Senate must convene within 48 hours of receiving the articles of impeachment. The new session is due to open on 6 January, and a Senate trial could start as early as Monday, 11 January, with the head of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Rehnquist, presiding. Counsel for either side calls witnesses and the 100 Senators (55 Republicans, 45 Democrats) constitute the jury and must remain silent throughout the proceedings. The removal of the President requires a two-thirds majority (67), which is judged improbable. Constitutional interpretations vary on whether the House or - more likely now - the Senate could decide to preempt impeachment with a vote of censure and/or a fine.