The tangled Whitewater affair moved into the constitutional arena yesterday as the White House defied an order to surrender documents to a Senate Committee - which promptly asked the Senate to authorise action to enforce the subpoena.
As the deadline passed, President Bill Clinton's spokesman Mike McCurry said the president had decided to "stand on principle" and not release notes of a meeting between White House aides and his private lawyer in November 1993, on grounds they were protected by attorney-client confidentiality.
Assuming the Senate agrees next week to the demand of the Whitewater Committee, a struggle in the courts will begin that could last six months or more. Almost certainly, the final word will lie with the Supreme Court, in the midst of a presidential election year.
For Mr Clinton, and his Republican tormentors on Capitol Hill, the stakes are high, as public attention turns again to the controversy over his business deals as Governor of Arkansas in the Eighties which have dogged his presidency from its outset. Despite its protestations to the contrary, the White House looks as if it is engaged in that supreme Washington transgression, a cover-up. But if nothing emerges, Republicans will be open to charges of wasting time and public money on a petty political vendetta.
For all the fuss, no one outside the immediate White House circle knows what the notes contain. Republicans dream of a "smoking gun" that would prove Administration meddling into the investigation of the 1989 collapse of the Madison Guaranty Bank, owned by the former partner of the Clintons in the ill-fated Whitewater real estate venture - or that the Clintons knew far more than they have let on about the dubious dealings which led to the bank's demise, at a cost to taxpayers of $60m
But the White House insists the documents are a mere "popgun", of scant or no significance to a case about which the public cares little and understands less. If so, aides argue, the confrontation will not dent Mr Clinton's current approval ratings of over 50 per cent, among the highest since he took office.
As Whitewater moved towards the courts, another deadline loomed to avert a second government shutdown due to start today, failing a budget agreement between the Administration and Congress.
With the current stop-gap spending authorisation expiring at midnight last night, both sides presented their latest proposals to produce a balanced budget within seven years. Mutual concessions and massaging of statistics have narrowed the gap, but differences remain.
The best bet is that after much pushing and shoving, marathon negotiations throughout the weekend will produce enough agreement for another temporary spending Bill by Monday, when the shutdown would come into full effect. At that point a final deal could be reached in January, paring back scheduled increases in entitlement programmes, slashing welfare, and perhaps containing a modest tax cut as well.Reuse content