Clinton makes plea for vote on `principle'

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AS POLITICAL Washington geared up for today's crucial vote in the House of Representatives, President Bill Clinton acknowledged publicly for the first time the prospect of an impeachment inquiry, and appealed for a vote on "principle" rather than politics.

Playing down reports that he had been personally lobbying the waverers in the Democratic Party, Mr Clinton insisted all his attention was focused on affairs of state, including the looming economic crisis abroad.

Quizzed fleetingly about the impeachment inquiry by reporters before a photo-call with the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, Mr Clinton said: "I think the vote should be a vote of principle. It's up to others to decide what happens to me, and ultimately it's going to be up to the American people to make a clear statement there."

At a keenly anticipated debate today the House of Representatives is expected to approve a resolution, already passed by the judiciary committee, instituting a formal impeachment inquiry into the President. This would make Mr Clinton the first president since Richard Nixon, and only the third US president, to face impeachment hearings.

Mr Clinton's public appearances since his public admission of the affair with Monica Lewinsky on 17 August have been arranged to make spontaneous contact with reporters almost impossible. He has eschewed all reference to the risk of impeachment. Yesterday's photo-call was a rare departure.

The President's brief replies indicated he had accepted that matters were now effectively out of his hands, but still hoped popular support would save him. "I think ultimately it will be for the American people to decide [on impeachment]. I owe them my best efforts to work for them and that's what I'm going to do," he said.

Mr Clinton acknowledged implicitly that he had spoken to Congressional Democrats about how they would vote. "There have been conversations with members," he said. "A large number called me, and I am attempting to call them all back."

A somewhat different gloss was placed on the telephone calls even by the White House press secretary, Joe Lockhart. "He's calling people and making his case," he said, "and we have made our case that the process needs to be fair, that there's nothing in this story that approaches impeachability."

That version was supported by individual Democrats, some of whom - especially those from conservative southern constituencies facing re-election next month - said they were likely to vote with the Republicans in favour of the inquiry. The Vice-President, Al Gore, and the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, were also drafted into the lobbying effort.