Iraq Crisis: As impeachment is put on hold...

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT CLINTON, whose political survival has defied every forecast, may have pulled off his most spectacular escape yet after congressional leaders agreed to postpone today's debate on impeachment prior to the attack on Baghdad.

As a US military strike on Iraq last night, Mr Clinton owed his rescue to two men who have proved more than once his twin allies in adversity - the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, and the Unscom chairman, Richard Butler.

Senior House Republicans said after a caucus meeting last night that they had agreed "a brief delay" in the impeachment debate, but anticipated that it would take place "over the weekend or early next week". Although they set no date, they insisted that an impeachment vote would not be put off indefinitely.

The prospect of a President facing removal at home as he ordered his troops into action abroad had made Congressmen queasy. On the Republican side, there was sotto voce support for the insinuations of the House majority whip, Tom DeLay, who had accused Mr Clinton of arranging his foreign exploits - most recently the past weekend's Middle East trip - to salvage his authority at home. On the Democratic side there were worries about the message conveyed to enemies and allies if the Commander in Chief was impeached in mid-war.

Where an impeachment vote had seemed inevitable, the whole debate was suddenly in question. The chairman of the judiciary committee, Henry Hyde, who had presided over the passage of four articles of impeachment against Mr Clinton last week, said that it would be "awkward" to have an impeachment vote while bombing was going on in Baghdad. An initial decision by the House Speaker designate, Bob Livingston, and the Democratic minority leader, Dick Gephardt, provided for postponement of the debate in the event of US military action.

That decision, which might have seemed almost an invitation to President Clinton to strike Iraq, was soon challenged by the leader of the Republican majority in the Senate, Trent Lott, who caused an unprecedented breach in the traditional all-party support for military action abroad by saying that he could not support a US strike on Iraq "at this time".

While he said that the White House had assured him there was no connection between the impending impeachment debate and the threatened air strikes, "both the timing and the policy", he said in a statement, "are subject to question".

The latest twist in President Clinton's remarkable year came almost 11 months to the day since the tawdry tale of Bill and Monica, the President and the White House trainee, had blazed into America's political consciousness as a mortal threat to his presidency. It came at what had seemed a new nadir for Mr Clinton, as political support fell away and the White House seemed to flail in search of a remedy.

Mr Clinton had returned from the Middle East to find the crisis that had faded, flickered and flared by turns was back with a vengeance. Vice- President Al Gore made a plea with Congress - his second in three days - to find a compromise and spare the nation the "painful ordeal" of impeachment. "That is what the American people want," he told reporters.

There was already evidence, however, that Mr Gore's words were not quite as accurate as they would have been even 48 hours before. The polls say the American people want the President to survive, but - in a crucial turn - an ABC-USA Today poll on Tuesday showed 58 per cent believing that resignation was preferable to a Senate trial. In other words, the voters would defer to their elected representatives: the people's President was losing his popular touch.

Every hour had brought worse news for the President, as one by one, the so-called "moderate" Republicans on whose support the White House had pinned its last hopes, fell into line behind impeachment.

Wild rumours filled the air in Washington of a dramatic appearance by the President on the Capitol to plead his case, of a new Presidential broadcast to the nation, of a tearful intervention by Hillary Clinton to beg the nation's forgiveness on behalf of her errant husband. By the end of the day, Mr Clinton had made a nationwide broadcast, but it was on Iraq.

As last night's air strikes on Iraq triggered the postponement of the impeachment debate, it appeared highly likely that Mr Clinton was off the hook. The momentum for impeachment that had gathered inexorably in the first half of yesterday was waning by the time the first air raid sirens sounded in Baghdad, and - for all the misgivings of Republicans - it looked unlikely to regain its full strength.

A postponement of just one day will leave the memory of yesterday's military action fresh in the minds of the House Representatives and undoubtedly raise conflicting loyalties: between the desire to sanction the President in the Lewinsky affair and not undermine his authority abroad. Postponement until next week would be highly unpopular with Congressmen and frustrate the intention of the judiciary committee to have the process over by Christmas.

Convening the House in the new year, however, would raise serious constitutional issues. The current House loses its mandate at the turn of the year, to be replaced by the House elected in last month's mid-term elections. That House must confirm its own elected officers, and committees. Is the newly elected House obliged to accept the votes of a committee whose mandate has expired?

When a constitutional lawyer argued that a House impeachment vote might die with the outgoing House if it was not acted on by the Senate, just as legislation does, he was out-argued by congressional constitutional experts, who said that articles of impeachment persist beyond the life of a Congress.

What no one envisaged, however, was that the articles might not actually come before the full House before its term expired. Without a vote in the House, they could not be passed to the Senate, and the President would not be subject to a Senate trial.

If, as looks probable, the full House is not convened before the new year, there are three possible outcomes. The first is that the new House could challenge the constitutionality of voting on impeachment articles approved by a judiciary committee that has no authority. The second would be a House decision to refer the matter all over again to the new judiciary committee. The third would be for the House to vote on the articles as they stand - a vote which the Democrats would be more likely to win because the Republican majority in the new House has shrunk to 12.

Even if the articles were approved by a narrow majority and forwarded to the Senate for a trial, the whole constitutional debate could start again, with the Senate questioning the validity of the articles - the formal charges against the President - and perhaps more open to a compromise. The size of the Republican majority in the Senate has not changed, but the political complexion of the incoming Senate is less tinged with Moral Majority fervour than before.

In any event, the postponement is good news for the President - the longer the delay, the greater his chances of surviving.