Iraq Bombings: Congress: Congress resumes impeachment vote

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The Independent Online
THE IMPEACHMENT of President Clinton was back on track yesterday. As missiles rained over Baghdad, Republican leaders in the US House of Representatives defied fierce protests from Democrats, and the prevailing mood of the public, to announce that they would proceed with the impeachment debate today, even if US military action was not over.

The House is set to convene at 9am today for a debate expected to culminate in a vote tomorrow. Proceedings will be chaired by Ray LaHood, as both the outgoing Speaker, Newt Gingrich, and the Speaker-elect, Bob Livingston, have declined to preside.

The announcement followed an impromptu debate on the floor of the House, the fervour of its arguments and ill-tempered partisanship offering a taste of what can be expected today. Democrats said that it was unseemly to debate the future of the President while US forces were engaged in military action, as it could demoralise the troops. Republicans insisted that military morale would be all the better for knowing that the constitutional process continued unimpaired.

Henry Hyde, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee when it passed four articles of impeachment against President Clinton last weekend, said: "We will not permit any terrorist dictator to derail the fulfilment of our constitutional responsibility." The House Minority leader, Dick Gephardt, who led the previous day's decision to postpone the debate, said: "We strongly object to this matter coming up tomorrow or any day in which our young men and women in the military are in harm's way."

Several thousand people had been bused in to Washington from the eastern States for a "prayer vigil" at the Capitol, planned to coincide with the impeachment debate. The pro-Clinton demonstration had been organised by The Rev Jesse Jackson in the hope of convincing Republicans to change their vote.

The White House showed a lofty disregard for proceedings in Congress. Asked whether Mr Clinton or the White House had intervened or communicated in any way with Congress on the timing of the impeachment debate, Joe Lockhart, a spokesman replied, "No."

Privately, however, the White House was reported to be sanguine about the decision, believing it could rebound on the Republicans. The view was that, even though the vote was likely to go against the President, the Republicans' majority would be slimmer than forecast two days ago, and the public disapproval generated could force a compromise and pre- empt a Senate trial.

But the Senate Majority leader, Trent Lott, who had divided Congressional Republicans the previous day by refusing to support military action, went out of his way to discourage this idea. If the House voted to impeach, he said, "we will go to trial and there won't be any deal-making."

The spontaneity of the debate in the House yesterday afternoon contrasted sharply with the regimented patriotism of the morning session, when the scheduled debate on impeachment had been replaced with a resolution of support for US military action.

The first speaker was the outgoing Speaker of the House, a slightly thinner, tireder Newt Gingrich. Mr Gingrich said that the President had followed constitutional niceties in "legitimately consulting" him in advance of the air strikes, and hailed American leadership.

"We have a chance today," he told the assembled Representatives, "to say to the world: `no matter what our constitutional process, no matter what our debates at home, we are prepared to lead the world.'"

Thereafter, the air was thick with reminiscences of war and heroism There was much sympathy for the "men and woman put in harm's way"- especially at Christmas time - and a volleys of insults against Saddam Hussein, a "psychopathic bully" who was facing the "measured and temperate response" of the United States.

The careful framing of the resolution, however, which made no mention of the President, only of the commanders and troops in the field, betrayed real divisions.

And while Representatives had clearly been muzzled with pep-talks about what was appropriate in the House - and that did not include criticism of the "personal conduct of the President" - allusions abounded to the possible personal motives of the President in going to war at such a time.