Congress debates President's fate

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The Independent Online
THE CONGRESSIONAL process that may force President Bill Clinton from office started yesterday when the judiciary committee of the House of Representatives met to debate whether to recommend impeachment hearings.

The vote in the Republican-majority committee was expected to split along party lines, paving the way for a vote by the full House later this week.

The 37 members assembled in a chamber that reverberated with echoes of the Watergate investigation 24 years ago. It was only the third time that the impeachment of a president had been considered by the committee. The tense atmosphere was tempered by a business-like briskness that kept most speakers to five-minute opening statements.

At issue was whether the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, had provided enough evidence to warrant further inquiry by Congress. In the words of the resolution, the committee had to "investigate whether sufficient grounds exist for the House of Representatives to exercise its constitutional power to impeach William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States of America". Unspoken, but ever-present, was the question of what price President Clinton should pay for his Oval Officeliaison with Monica Lewinsky.

"This will be an emotional process, a strenuous process, because feelings are high on all sides," said the Republican chairman, Henry Hyde.

Mr Hyde, who has ceased to be described by the US media as "widely respected" following recent disclosures of an affair 30 years ago that broke up a young family, was concerned that the point of the day's proceedings was not to judge the President's behaviour. The aim, he said, was to "decide whether to look further, or look away."

But the Democrats' lead speaker, John Conyers, one of Mr Clinton's strongest Congressional supporters over the past nine months, was adamant. "This is not Watergate," he said. "It's an extramarital affair ... There is no support for any suggestion that the President obstructed justice or tampered with witnesses or abused the power of his office."

The line from Democrats throughout was that Mr Clinton had made "an unfortunate mistake", had acknowledged it and would suffer for it, but that what he did was a personal matter, not a matter for impeachment. "I am not proud of this President," said Robert Wexler of Florida. But he was not proud of the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, either. Like other Democrats, he peppered his statements with calls for "genuine partisanship" of the sort that Democrats claim (others disagree) prevailed during the Watergate hearings.

The view of Republicans on the committee was quite different. "It is not for us to sit in judgment over the President's personal lifestyle," said James Rogan, a Californian Republican, "this is a matter of the law." "Can we sustain our constitutional form of government," argued Bill McCollom, of Florida, "without going forward at this point." And what would other people say when they were taken to court for such crimes as perjury?

In his report, Mr Starr set out 11 counts on which he argued that there could be grounds for impeaching Mr Clinton, three of them related to lying under oath about the nature of his relationship with Ms Lewinsky. The tenor of yesterday's discussion left no doubt that the decision on impeachment hearings would be forwarded to the full House. The vote may take place as early as Thursday.

In pre-emptive criticism that nevertheless acknowledged the inevitability of hearings, the White House spokesman, Joe Lockhart, attacked the refusal of the committee chairman to set a deadline for the investigation, saying it could become "an open-ended process". Democrats want the proceedings finished by Thanksgiving on 26 November. Mr Hyde says he would like them over by the New Year, but will not guarantee that.

t The White House chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, is to leave before the mid-term congressional elections next month, officials confirmed yesterday. Mr Bowles, who took up his post at the beginning of 1997, had intimated his desire to return to his North Carolina home late last year, but then agreed to stay "for a long period of time". He is the second senior White House official to leave this autumn; the chief spokesman, Mike McCurry, left last week.