The mood of the 37-member committee, whose Republican majority reflects the balance of power in the House, was grave, as members went from the often-portentous rhetoric of their opening statements to quibbling over the small print of the four draft articles of impeachment. The articles, drawn up this week, allege perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power by the President in the Monica Lewinsky affair and call for his removal from office.
The likelihood that at least one perjury count will be forwarded to the full House crystallised concern in the Clinton camp that lengthy proceedings could affect the smooth functioning of the Administration and impair US diplomacy.
A dip in US share values on Thursday, which continued yesterday, was partly attributed to the political uncertainty.
The committee's debate reached its climax as President Clinton prepared to leave for Israel on the first leg of a three-day visit that also takes him to Palestinian territory.
But the controversy in Washington centred less on the merits of his Middle Eastern trip than whether he was wise to leave the country at all at a time when his presidency was under such pressure. A number of leading Democrats pressed him to address the nation "sooner rather than later", but the White House said there were no plans for him to do so, and he passed up the opportunity to comment, at a public appearance yesterday morning.
The last of the opening statements in the House committee were heard yesterday morning, with the Republican chairman, Henry Hyde, rounding them off with his own assessment. "Perjury is not sex," he said, andstressed that the articles of impeachment did not mention sexual misconduct.
Lying in court, Mr Hyde said, "is a public action and deserves public sanction." Mr Clinton, he said, had not indulged in "some garden variety perjury, but repeated and multiple perjury."
The decision the committee took, he said, would "answer questions about us: who are we, and what do we stand for?"
Mary Bono, the widow of Sonny Bono, who was elected to her late husband's House seat, said that Mr Clinton had "abused his power as chief executive to protect himself" and warned that if he got away with it, "any person who challenges a person in authority is going to be subject to all sorts of abuse".
Another Republican, Lindsey Graham, voiced the sentiments of many when he said gravely of his impeachment vote: "I doubt whether I'll do anything as important for my nation as this."
But Mr Clinton had the support of one of the committee's more forceful orators, Robert Wexler, who said: "This elitist group will vote to remove the President. What's it about? Sex. Wake up, America. If they can do it to the President, they can do it to you."Reuse content