Vote sends Congress on long search for the truth

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AT 3PM YESTERDAY, Bill Clinton became the first President since Richard Nixon to face a formal impeachment inquiry by Congress. The size of the majority in the House of Representatives, 82 votes, gave comfort to both sides of the political divide. The minority Democrats were relieved that their ranks had stayed as intact as they had, with only 31 defections. The majority Republicans were grateful for the number that did defect.

Henry Hyde, chairman of the House judiciary committee who proposed the inquiry resolution, stated: "We can build on that."

The result, however, is that Mr Clinton now faces months, perhaps more than a year, of Congressional investigation that will keep alive the tawdry details of the Monica Lewinsky affair, and could extend into other potentially embarrassing areas (the White House travel office sackings, the unauthorised transfer of FBI files to the White House and the Whitewater land deal) - depending on any further evidence that the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, is able or willing to present.

After yesterday's debate, both parties presented a manner of civility and pledge of fair play in the inquiry to come that belied the bitterness and mutual suspicion that showed repeatedly during the two-hour debate.

Mr Hyde, responding to Democratic accusations of "partisanship", doubled the time allotted to discussion from the one hour that had been set aside, and pledged "the fairest and most expeditious search for the truth that I can muster".

He expressed the hope that both parties would "look every day for common ground" and "do everything to minimise disagreements". The question at issue was not "whether to impeach", but "shall we look further or shall we look away?"

Despite predictions that a large number of Democrats might cross the floor, most speakers remained loyal to their party's line. Democrats voiced disapproval of Mr Clinton's conduct, but opposed the move towards impeachment.

Republicans - who currently have a majority in the House of 21 - demanded nothing less than a full impeachment inquiry. In a vain attempt to temper the inevitable, Democrats tabled an alternative motion demanding that any inquiry be completed by the end of the year, but this was easily defeated.

One of the most forceful speeches came from one of the Democrat dissenters, Paul McHale, of Pennsylvania, who was one of the first to call for Mr Clinton's resignation after he had publicly acknowledged his liaison with Ms Lewinsky for the first time.

Arguing that the President was "no different from any other citizen" before the law, Mr McHale said Mr Clinton's conduct had set "a dangerous precedent for some future president of the United States". Among the charges he levelled at Mr Clinton were that he had "sought to cover up a sordid and irresponsible relationship ... with answers under oath that were intentionally and plainly false and subsequently deceived the American people".

The President's actions were not "inappropriate", he said, "but predatory, reckless and breathtakingly arrogant for a man already defending a sexual harassment suit ..." He had forfeited his right to office. "We cannot define the President's character, but we must define the nation's," he said to applause.

However, a fellow Democrat, Robert Wexler, from Florida, insisted that President Clinton had been elected to deal with affairs of state. On the one hand, he said, were issues like the nation's health care; on the other - the affair with Monica Lewinsky, and "God help us if we do not recognise the difference".