Hillary appeals as impeachment starts

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SCORNING THE pleas of Democrats, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives yesterday railroaded through the opening of the debate to impeach President Bill Clinton, a confrontation they have lusted after for months.

Republicans, whose mood had already been soured by Democrats' attempts to postpone the debate, arrived baying for blood and in no mood for compromise. They booed and yelled as Democrats tried for a new delay, citing the national interest, and calmed down only for the formal reading of the four articles of impeachment - perjury (twice), obstruction of justice and abuse of power - before engaging for an uproarious and bitter debate.

The mood of the House, alternately grave and raucous, abject and combative, seemed to guarantee a vote for impeachment today.

The White House kept an insouciant distance, but looked powerless to halt the momentum for impeachment.

The only intervention was the half-hearted deployment of its weapon of last resort, the First Lady, Hillary Clinton. She broke a week of silence to call for "reconciliation" to end the "divisiveness" in the country.

Asked after an unrelated event to comment on the course of impeachment, she said: "The vast majority of Americans share my approval and pride in the job the President has been doing for our country.

"I think in this holiday season, as we celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah and Ramadan, it's time for reflection and reconciliation among people, we ... ought to practise reconciliation and we ought to bring our country together. We ought to end divisiveness, because we can do so much more together."

Mrs Clinton's apparently unscripted remarks were cooler and less personal than some she has offered in support of her husband, but the choreography was significant.

She spoke outside the White House, with the glistening white dome of the Capitol in the background, a televisual message if ever there was one, that the White House would let the constitutional process take its course, but was fighting on.

Mr Clinton was conducting himself as he has done since the start of the impeachment crisis, attending to matters of state - now dominated by the assault on Iraq - and staying above the fray.

The previous day the White House spokesman had said Congress had its priorities and the White House had its, and they were different. However, it also let slip that the political truce that had prevailed during the day-long postponement of the debate was at an end. And Republicans interpreted media reports of their Speaker-elect's adultery - and his subsequent admission - as evidence that battle for the moral low ground had been rejoined, and might be a struggle to the death.

The White House seems to be preparing for the next, and last, fight: the trial in the Senate. Mrs Clinton, a respected lawyer who took part in the congressional investigation of President Richard Nixon 24 years ago, was reported to be consulting constitutional experts and historians.

If they go down, it seems, the Clintons will go down fighting - and together.

Bitter wrangles, page 5