The House, which is in recess, has been summoned back to Washington for only the second vote of its kind in history: on whether articles of impeachment should be forwarded to the Senate and the President should stand trial. A simple majority for any of the four articles would ensure a trial in the Senate, which could open as soon as 11 January.
But, as both sides agree, there is everything to play for. Although the Republicans have a 21-seat majority in the House, the outcome of this week's vote is too close to predict and if members have no censure option to choose as a middle way, they have a straight choice: a Senate trial on impeachment or nothing.
By the end of the week Mr Clinton's reputation as the Houdini president will be confirmed or he will be one of the most shamed presidents in history. If the vote goes in favour of a Senate trial there is general agreement it would not result in his removal. Impeachment requires a two-thirds majority - 67 or the 100 Senators - and even if the vote went strictly along party lines, the Republican majority of nine would be insufficient. In the past week, however, the White House has seemed increasingly worried about the effect of a Senate trial and less philosophical about toughing it out to the end.
Between now and Thursday, Clinton supporters will be doing their utmost to ensure the former. One possibility is to try to revive a censure motion on the floor of the House. Democrats hope the combination of public support for Mr Clinton and worries about the destabilising effect of a Senate trial on the running of the country might convince Republicans to settle for something less than impeachment. Mr Clinton has said he would accept a rebuke.
But the omens are not good. Constitutionally, it is uncertain whether a motion dismissed in committee can be revived in the full house, and the idea now seems to be in decline. Crying wolf about the unsettling effects of a Senate trial cuts both ways, as Democrats found last week, when the stock market started to fall at the prospect.
The White House appeared yesterday to be retrenching. With many senior staff in the Middle East with Mr Clinton and not due back until late tomorrow, their strategy was on hold. Mr Clinton insists the matter is out of his hands, which did not stop his last-minute broadcast to the nation on Friday and might not discourage him from another intervention on the eve of the vote. Some suggested Hillary Clinton might make a broadcast on his behalf, but there seemed little substance to that view.
What remained to the White House was a continuation of tactics employed at other points in the Monica Lewinsky affair: the brute political force of arm-twisting and inducements. Two particularly vocal Republican members of the Judiciary Committee said last week they had been smeared and blamed the White House.
Mr Clinton and aides were said to be calling key Democratic Congress members to minimise defections. Yesterday he said he was open to talking to any Congress member who wanted to discuss the case but would not call anyone who did not first express an interest.
At least one of his defenders on the Judiciary Committee, the populist Maxine Waters, of Los Angeles, proposed pro-Clinton demonstrations by blacks to capitalise on his popular support.Reuse content