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`Senators, how say you?' `Not guilty on all counts'

BILL CLINTON could breathe easily last night for the first time in 13 months, after the incubus of the Monica Lewinsky affair was finally lifted from his presidency.

In only the second such impeachment vote in its history, the US Senate handsomely acquitted William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, of the two Articles of Impeachment against him, making him not only the second President to be impeached and tried, but the second to prevail. He also avoided any formal motion of censure, which was rejected by the Senate without a vote.

The final votes - 55-45 against conviction on the charges of perjury, 50-50 on the obstruction of justice charges - in a Senate where Mr Clinton's Republican opponents enjoy a majority, constituted a triumph for the President and his legal team, falling well short of the two-thirds majority required for conviction. But the 50-50 vote on the obstruction charge (with five Republican not-guilty votes) seemed an eminently fitting conclusion to a case that had divided legal minds across the US.

It was another day of drama and history on the Capitol, the culmination of the constitutional process of presidential impeachment not seen since the trial of Andrew Johnson in 1868. At midday, after three days of closed debate and as many weeks of open argument, the heavy doors of the Senate chamber were swung open, and reporters, Congressional staff and visitors crowded into the galleries for the final vote.

The presiding judge, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, ordered the reading of the first Article of Impeachment, and then commanded: "Senators, how say you? Is the respondent, William Jefferson Clinton, guilty or not guilty?"

Called by name, in alphabetical order, each senator rose from his or her seat to deliver their verdict. For the half-hour duration of the two votes, the Senate was in utter silence, but for the single questions and answers called across the chamber.

The Democrats' vote held solid for "not guilty"; but with nine Republicans defecting on the perjury charge, and five on the obstruction of justice charge, Mr Clinton was acquitted even more convincingly than expected, and considerably more than Andrew Johnson, who survived removal from office by a single vote.

At the close of proceedings, the Chief Justice was presented with a "golden gavel" - an award reserved for Congressional chairmen who have presided for 100 hours - and given a standing ovation. In a closing speech, Mr Rehnquist spoke of the "more free-form environment" he had found at the Senate compared with his own Supreme Court, but said he was leaving "a wiser, but not a sadder man".

A Senate trial, a splicing of politics and justice, is one of the rare times when the three branches of the United States system come together. Hailed as a living "civics" lesson for Americans, it was also a demonstration for the world of American democracy at its limits.

The President was expected to make some form of address after the vote, acknowledging once again the pain he had caused his family and colleagues.

The presidential line is that the White House will be a "gloat-free zone" after impeachment is swept away, with the President expected instead to give the impression that he wants business as usual to resume. Spokesmen said there was a "sense of relief", but were not even sure whether the President would watch the key moment on television.

The White House has discounted reports that it will use every opportunity to get back at the Congressional Republicans who led the impeachment assault, saying that would be counterproductive.

Of the Republican senators who gave public explanations of their decision to break with their party's "guilty" consensus, a majority cited legal considerations, including the fact that in their view the evidence was exclusively circumstantial. Political considerations were not far away, however, as the majority represent states where pro-Clinton sentiment is strong.

Arlen Specter, from Pennsylvania, distinguished himself by calling out "not proven" when asked for his vote, a non-constitutional option that was recorded, after a frisson, as "not guilty".

Even though the last elections are only three months past, Washington is already gearing up for the 2000 elections, with presidential candidates emerging from the Republican Party, fund-raising activity getting into high gear and lists of vulnerable Congressional districts being drawn up.

The Democrats will try to capitalise on their lead in the polls, which is partly derived from public antagonism towards the Republican stance on impeachment.

The final public chapter of the Bill and Monica affair closed a year that had seen comedy and tragedy in equal measure and tested every pillar of American society and its democracy.

It had augmented American discourse at every level, from high political and constitutional argument through inspirational rhetoric, to ribald anecdotes and coarse innuendo.

It had also seen the return of some of its leading characters in the final week: the filmed testimony of the leading lady, Monica Lewinsky, in the Senate chamber, and yesterday, in the press and on television, the self-defence of Linda Tripp, the woman whose tape-recordings of her young friend started the whole sorry scandal.

While the public aspects of the Monica Lewinsky affair are now closed, the private pain will probably persist. There has been only speculation about the harm that Mr Clinton has caused to his family.