The debate had been set for yesterday but Republicans grudgingly agreed to a postponement after Mr Clinton ordered airstrikes against Iraq.
Representatives had come to Washington to bury the President and found themselves praising him instead.
Summoned back to Washington for only the second House impeachment debate in US history, they trooped into the Chamber yesterday to chorus a panegyric to America's "men and women in uniform" and to train their fire on another enemy, that old Washington standby, President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
But Republican leaders were determined to force the agenda on impeachment.
The debate, postponed for an indeterminate "few days" following US and British strikes on Iraq, was all but forgotten in the fervour whipped up around US troops now "in harm's way".
In a reminder of the day's original agenda, hundreds of coaches converged on the Capitol, bringing people who had expected a prayer vigil in the President's support as the House debated his fate. Called by the Rev Jesse Jackson and organised by his Chicago-based Rainbow-Push coalition, it had been intended to illustrate support for Mr Clinton outside Washington in a final attempt to convince Republicans to change their vote.
Suddenly, though, the representatives in the Capitol and those outside were singing the same tune: polls yesterday showed 70 per cent of respondents approving Mr Clinton's use of force against Iraq. Asked by a reporter about accusations that he hoped to deflect attention from impeachment, he flashed back: "It's not true."
Listening to the House "debate" yesterday it was almost possible to believe the nation and their representatives were united. The resolution, sponsored by Republicans, offered support for the troops in the Gulf and called for the removal of President Saddam. The first speaker was the outgoing House Speaker, the Representative from Georgia, a slightly thinner, tireder Newt Gingrich.
As Speaker, he said, he had been "legitimately consulted" by the President in advance of the strikes. "It would be nice," he said, "to run and hide, find some grand isolation in which to cower," but today, "in this age", it was impossible. "We have a chance today to say to the world: `no matter what our constitutional process, no matter what our debates at home, we are as a nation prepared to lead the world'." Thereafter, the air was thick with reminiscences of war and heroism (the speakers included no fewer than three Gulf war veterans and a clutch of Vietnam veterans).
But a close reading of the resolution - which was passed by acclamation - and some throwaway lines in some speeches, showed the extent to which the debate had been stagemanaged and how close to the surface were the risks. The resolution made no mention to the President or support for him; support was for the commanders and troops in the field.
Republicans had to balance their determination to impeach the President and their genuine rejection of his conduct in the Lewinsky affair with the patriotic requirement for support at a time of national crisis - and the Republicans split.
Trent Lott, their leader in the Senate, said that while "all Americans will fully support our troops in battle", he personally could not support military action "at this time ... Both the timing and the policy are subject to question."
Dick Armey, his deputy, said that "the suspicion about Clinton's motives" could "in itself be a powerful argument for impeachment ... the President has given millions of people around the world reason to doubt he has sent Americans into battle for the right reasons." Republican anger was less defused than in suspense, and pressure for the impeachment debate to be held sooner rather than later simmered in the background. But if senior Democrats have their way, the delay could last into next week. The House Minority Leader, Dick Gephardt, said: "What will Saddam Hussein think if, at the very time our people over there are attacking him militarily, the Congress here is moving on an effort take the President out of office?"Reuse content