Can Congress Steer Past a Searing Choice?

Washington is poised between an extremely divisive process and a bipartisan deal.

Debate has stopped, for now. The House of Representatives has turned its attention to the elections, following its historic approval of an impeachment inquiry into President Clinton.

But as lawmakers scatter for home, or get ready to, some wonder whether the elements are in place for the coming struggle over the president's future to explode into a bitter national argument - the political equivalent of what meteorologists call "the perfect storm."

Most of official Washington still believes things won't get that bad. The conventional wisdom is that Republicans and Democrats will strike some sort of post-election deal to punish the president, yet leave him in office.

This theory stems from the calculation, made by members of both parties, that two-thirds of senators are unlikely to vote to remove Mr. Clinton from his job. After Nov. 3, the GOP may bow to this reality and decide on a negotiated end to the process.

In voting for a formal impeachment inquiry, however, House lawmakers have begun something that is likely to be both profound and hard to control.

Once the gavel goes down, the track of the investigation may be as difficult to foresee as the path of one of New England's fabled northeasters.

The coming impeachment process "could be the most divisive thing in American politics since the Vietnam War," Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) of New York told the Associated Press last week.

To a meteorologist, a "perfect storm" is what happens when the elements combine in just the right manner to produce weather that is as bad as it could be.

Will that happen in the impeachment inquiry into the relationship between Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky?

The seeds for such an occurrence exist, say some experts:

High stakes and no clear answers. Representatives agree that an impeachment vote would be probably the most serious of their careers.

Yet there is sharp disagreement, not so much about the facts of Clinton's behavior as about the importance of that behavior.

The key question is whether Clinton's attempt to conceal his private sexual behavior constitutes a high crime and misdemeanor worthy of removing him from office.

In the House debate last week, GOP lawmakers tended to focus on legality. Many said, among other things, that to permit any president - the symbol of America personified - to lie under oath about anything would undermine the foundation of the nation's legal system.

Some Democrats, for their part, focused on the perceived importance of the offense, saying that nothing the president is accused of doing was a threat to the state itself.

A squabbling jury. Over the past 10 years, waves of congressional redistricting have tended to produce seats that are more heavily Democratic, or more heavily Republican.

The increasing rareness of true swing districts, and the moderates they produce, has been a major factor driving the widely noted rise of partisanship in Congress.

The effect of this deepening chasm has been that the two sides often talk past each other in political argument, rather than engaging in true debate.

Lawmakers know that the numbers on each team's side are more important than the ability to sway waverers.

A fast-moving trial. One of the major differences between the process of Watergate and the process of today has been the sequence of important stages, say historians.

During Watergate, public Senate hearings preceded House action and gave both the public and lawmakers a chance to digest evidence against President Nixon as it was presented, piece by piece. Public opinion was prepared for each step the House took toward the eventual forced resignation of the president.

In the Clinton case, by contrast, the House vote for an impeachment inquiry has preceded public hearings. In effect, the effort may be front-loaded.

IT is true that the House has made public vast amounts of information gathered by independent counsel Kenneth Starr about the case, from raw grand-jury testimony to transcripts of Linda Tripp's famous tapes.

But the sheer amount of material may weigh against understanding. Whether posting 9,000 pages of documents on the Internet within a few days is the equivalent, in terms of public education, of Sen. Sam Ervin's Watergate hearings, is an open question.

Under the worst possibility, partisanship continues to reign in the House when hearings begin after the election.

The Republicans press forward, and an impeachment vote passes along party lines, though polls show that a majority of the nation still wants Clinton to serve out his term.

The Senate would then hold a trial. Whether the outcome is foreordained or not, that spectacle could stymie domestic legislation and United States leadership overseas.

"That could get really nasty," says Thomas Mann, head of government studies at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. "The potential exists for it, though I don't think it's inevitable by any means."

More likely, says Mr. Mann, are other scenarios. Hearings may gradually persuade voters that the president has committed high crimes and misdemeanors, leading to a more bipartisan impeachment vote.

Or steadfast public opposition to impeachment may cause Republicans to look for a way out of the process short of impeachment.

"I think pressure on [the GOP] for that will build," says Calvin Jillson, a government professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

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