Hours before the debate was due to open, the news had sped around Washington that Mr Livingston, 55, elected last month to succeed Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House, had admitted marital infidelity. "During my 33-year marriage to my wife, Bonnie, I have on occasion strayed from my marriage, and doing so nearly cost me my marriage and family," he said in a statement.
It came as the twice-weekly congressional newspaper, Roll Call, was going to press.
The paper had posted a report on its website exposing the Speaker-elect's indiscretions and Mr Livingston made clear his admission had been prompted by that revelation: "There are individuals working with the media who are investigating my personal background in an effort to find indiscretions which may be exploitable against me and my party on the eve of the upcoming historic vote on impeachment."
He drew a distinction between his conduct and that of Mr Clinton with the White House trainee Monica Lewinsky, saying: "I want to assure everyone that these indiscretions were not with employees on my staff and I have never been asked to testify under oath about them," he said.
He insisted he would not resign or change his stance on impeachment.
He then appeared before a packed party meeting, where he repeated his admission to a standing ovation.
The corridors of the Capitol were alive with Republicans who claimed to see the hand of the White House behind the Speaker-elect's admission, and repeated their cries of "sexual McCarthyism". Mr Livingston was the fourth Republican to be accused of sexual misconduct since the independent prosecutor's report on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair was passed to the House, and the answer to the question "Who benefits from such allegations?" was clear.
Similar accusations were made against Henry Hyde, chairman of the judiciary committee, before it opened impeachment hearings. Mr Hyde, 74, was alerted to a report in the pro-Clinton Internet magazine Salon about a 30-year- old affair with a married woman which had ended her marriage. In admitting it, he dismissed it as a "youthful indiscretion" (he was in his forties at the time). He tendered his resignation to the judiciary committee but it was turned down.
The White House denied involvement in the Livingston allegations, as it had denied having anything to do with the others. But they undoubtedly had an effect in focusing attention back on the issue of sexual misconduct and away from the legal and constitutional issues.
They made it more difficult for Republicans, as a party, to take the moral high ground against Mr Clinton, and they may have discouraged representatives with a "past" from expressing themselves too forcefully against Mr Clinton - or speaking at all. That, at least, was the Republican view.Reuse content