Seven days that could make or break Clinton

A vigorous White House defence team is swinging into action on impeachment, reports Mary Dejevsky
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The Independent Online
OF THE MANY make-or-break weeks there have been in President Bill Clinton's precarious year, the seven days ahead are among the most critical. The committee that must decide whether to recommend trial by Senate, the next and final stage in the impeachment process, should reach its conclusions by the end of this week.

By then, it will have heard representations in the President's defence from his team of personal lawyers (Tuesday), drawn up and debated (Thursday, Friday and perhaps even Saturday) an article, or articles, of impeachment - the equivalent of formal charges - and passed its recommendation to the full House of Representatives.

The House could vote as soon as the end of this week or the beginning of next week, thus fulfilling its pledge to have completed its business by Christmas. Bill Clinton (scheduled to be abroad at the time, as he has been at many decisive stages of this saga) will then know whether he can return to celebrate, or must rehearse his defence one more time, for the benefit of a new judge and jury - the head of the Supreme Court and the Senate.

Nothing is quite so simple. Last week, without explanation, the House judiciary committee suddenly delved into accusations of presidential wrongdoing in an area apart from the Monica Lewinsky affair - the soliciting of funds for the Democratic Party and the 1996 presidential election. Three days later, that line of inquiry was dropped as suddenly as it was raised, after supposedly incriminating documents were judged to be nothing of the kind.

Late on Friday, the White House dropped its small bombshell. As well as going to the Capitol on Tuesday to mount a "vigorous defence" of Mr Clinton, his lawyers now want to summon their witnesses - among them a constitutional lawyer, to present his view of impeachable offences, and a perjury expert, to explain definitions of that crime. The committee must decide before next week whether to accept these additions and try to accommodate them within the agreed timetable or whether to reject them as an unacceptable attempt to draw out the proceedings beyond the Congressional term.

This late intervention by the White House also indicates that the President wants to leave nothing to chance. Even as the rest of the country looks askance at the political quarrels in the capital and the most zealous of Washington pundits finds it hard to take the threat of impeachment seriously, the White House, according to some, is "nervous".

Until last week, Mr Clinton had let the judiciary committee's proceedings take their course. Now, he will mount a defence. Until late last week, there was talk of negotiation and a compromise to forestall impeachment. That talk has faded. Quietly, perhaps, and boring to numbness the scandal- fatigued American public, the procedure ordained by the Constitution is taking its course. The risk for the White House is that no one will want, or care enough, to stop it.

Two developments could still save Mr Clinton the ordeal of trial by Senate. The first would be a formal motion tabled by a member, or members, of the judiciary committee, proposing a lesser punishment than impeachment. Hedging its bets, the White House indicated that Mr Clinton would not be averse to the prospect of a Congressional reprimand, perhaps with a fine.

In what appeared to be a challenge to the judiciary committee, White House officials also made known their concern that if the impeachment process went forward, the country could be paralysed for months. In other words, the national interest dictated that impeachment stop before it had really started. But the judiciary committee's taste for a compromise has fluctuated.

Sticklers for the Constitution say a vote of censure or reprimand was not envisaged by the Founding Fathers: the choice is impeachment or nothing. Some of the same people say if the President committed perjury, that justifies impeachment, as the oath to tell the truth is a pillar of the judicial system. Others, moderate Republicans as well as Democrats, say perjury has still to be proved, and covering up a sex scandal belongs in a separate category from the "high crimes and misdemeanours" defined as impeachable. Whether it is strictly constitutional or not, they would like to bargain a punishment that the President could accept, and move on to their normal business of legislating.

If, as appears likely, the committee approves at least one article of impeachment (probably perjury) that would have to be approved for passage to the Senate by a vote of the full House - which is where Mr Clinton's second, and perhaps best, chance lies. If a dozen or more Republicans have qualms about impeaching the President over a sex scandal, worry that the electorate might hold their anti-Clinton vote against them at the next elections, or even find themselves threatened with revelations about their own private lives if they vote for impeachment, they could be moved to vote against.

In that event, Mr Clinton could escape entirely without punishment. The shame of having impeachment proceedings brought would still hang over his presidency. But even if he faced prosecution for perjury once he left office - one possibility under discussion - there would be no further consequences for his term in office. Throughout last week, estimates of the voting numbers in the full House varied daily, by as many as 10 either way, and this weekend no one is venturing to forecast the outcome.