More Republicans turn on Clinton

Impeachment crisis: The White House needs to woo 20 senators in vital vote, as intellectuals back President at rally
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The Independent Online
THE WEIGHT of political opinion moved further against President Bill Clinton yesterday, with key Republicans speaking out for his impeachment.

As the President flew back from the Middle East last night, more Republicans moved against him. And without a dramatic gesture from the White House, his advisers seem to be pessimistic that he can escape a vote on impeachment by the House of Representatives tomorrow or on Friday.

There are four articles of impeachment laid against the President in the House, relating to alleged perjury and obstruction of justice in the investigation into his affair with Monica Lewinsky. A vote would lead to a trial in the Senate which could mean that Mr Clinton is removed from office.

The White House was considering a number of moves to galvanise support, including a televised address to the nation and an appearance on Capitol Hill. But the rampant speculation about what he might do, accompanied by a fresh casting-around for ways out of the apparent impasse, was partly a reflection of the disbelief that the President might be sliding gradually towards disaster.

Robert Dole, the former Republican Senator who was defeated by Mr Clinton for the White House in 1992, yesterday offered a compromise to avoid impeachment, replacing it with a resolution in the Senate that would condemn his behaviour but leave him in office.

The step-by-step procedure would end before the new year. It "would demonstrate to the vast majority of Americans that Republican congressional leaders will fulfil their constitutional responsibilities, clear the decks and move forward when the 106th Congress convenes," he said in an article in the New York Times. The Washington Post has backed a congressional censure in a leading article.

Republican leaders in the House have so far ruled out any initiative that would circumvent the impeachment procedure.

The Republicans have a slim majority of 228 to 206 with one independent. At least three Democrats will vote for impeachment. So the White House needs about 15 Republican votes to escape. There were estimated to be at least 20 who were wavering, but that number gets smaller every day.

One Republican who had opposed impeachment said yesterday that he would now back it. Jack Quinn of New York said that the issue was "about principle, not about politics". Fred Upton of Michigan, John McHugh of New York and Tom Campbell of California, who had been counted as undecided, also came out against the President.

Today, Mr Clinton will meet Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican who had opposed impeachment but says he is now undecided.

But the White House's inability or unwillingness to reach out to Republicans has been commented on with increasing incomprehension in Washington. The President's supporters have mobilised grassroots campaigns, and television and radio advertisements are running to back him. This may not be enough.

He retains enormous popular support, with 61 per cent opposing the idea of impeachment, according to an opinion poll by the Washington Post and ABC News. But only 29 per cent said they would be angry if he were impeached; another 29 per cent would be dissatisfied, but not angry. And ominously for the President, 58 per cent think that he should resign if the House votes to impeach him, even before a Senate trial.

It would be unwise to ignore the President's remarkable ability to fight back against his critics. He has repeatedly demonstrated a flair for coming back off the ropes, exploiting his personal political skills.

Equally, the White House has several times exploited its management of expectations to help the President to gain unexpected victories.

The looming sense of darkness in Washington, as impeachment becomes a real prospect, may yet persuade some Congressmen to change their minds. The stock market has taken fright as the vote approaches. For these reasons and more, the mainstream judgement in Washington has been that Congress would shy away from removing the President, and that some way would be found to avoid the fatal step.

But that seems more and more difficult to see. And the judgements of Washington and its denizens have not been particularly good so far in plotting the course of the proceedings against the President.

Time magazine yesterday summed up the mixture of uncertainty, fascination, and nausea with a silhouette of the President, and a headline in lurid red letters: "Will they really do it?"