Impeachment vote `now unavoidable'

Click to follow
AFTER VIRTUALLY ignoring the deliberations of the House of Representatives judiciary committee for the best part of a month, lawyers for President Bill Clinton are heading to Capitol Hill to head off the prospect of articles of impeachment being put to the vote by the weekend.

The lawyers will be defending the President in two sessions, today and tomorrow, each of which is scheduled to run from 9am until midnight.

The appearance of the lawyers, who are expected to call as many as a dozen witnesses in Mr Clinton's defence, illustrates a sharp change of mood in the White House from near-indifference to near-panic, as the prospect of a House vote on impeachment becomes more difficult to avoid, or delay.

Capitol Hill and lobbyists' offices across Washington were abuzz with activity yesterday, as politicians and pundits tried to gauge President Clinton's chances of avoiding a trial by the Senate, the next, and final, stage of the impeachment process. With alternative routes - a vote of censure, fine or reprimand - progressively losing favour, the full House of Representatives could vote on an all-or-nothing scenario: to forward one or more articles of impeachment to the Senate or to let Mr Clinton off.

The articles - equivalent to formal charges - under discussion by the House judiciary committee include perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power. The perjury accusation relates to Mr Clinton's denials in the civil sexual harassment case brought by Paula Jones (now settled) and in a subsequent grand jury investigation, that he had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. This is thought the most likely charge to be forwarded to the Senate.

The obstruction of justice charge concerns the accusation that Mr Clinton ensured that Ms Lewinsky and his personal secretary, Betty Currie, lied to protect him, and the abuse of power charge relates to his use of White House and government officials to defend him.

However, the balance of political advantage has perceptibly shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans, as the psychological effect of last month's Congressional elections results has worn off.

A vote for impeachment in the House would have the desired effect for the Republicans. It would satisfy the call of their conservative constituents for punishment, without the risk that Mr Clinton would be removed from power. The Republican majority in the Senate is nothing like sufficient to produce the necessary two-thirds majority to remove the President from office.

The White House, however, would greatly prefer that proceedings were halted before they reached that stage.

The first vote, in the House judiciary committee, probably later this week, is safely predicted to go along party lines. The second, in the full House, is estimated at 50-50. This is the vote that the White House is so keen to influence.

President Clinton has adopted the approach of business as usual. He is due to preside over a symposium on the US state pension system at the White House - a subject of consuming interest to Americans who fear that state coffers could run dry before they retire.

He will also attend a memorial service for Vice-President Al Gore's father, who died at the weekend. On Saturday he leaves for a three day visit to Israel and Gaza, where he will become the first US leader to address the Palestinian assembly.