The Best Defense

This week could well be the most crucial in Bill Clinton's presidency. His lawyers' presentation before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives Dec. 8 and 9 may determine if the tide towards impeachment can be turned.

The committee has heard the case against the president from independent counsel Kenneth Starr. By the end of the week it will likely approve at least one article of impeachment against the president on grounds he committed perjury - lied under oath - before a federal grand jury.

The case then goes to the whole House next week. While one Republican and several Democratic attempts to censure the president instead of impeach him are under way, Republican leaders don't sound inclined to allow a censure vote at this time. Judiciary chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois opposes censure, but won't rule it out.

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Should the House vote to impeach, which takes a simple majority, the case would move on to a trial by the Senate, with a two-thirds vote required for conviction and removal from office. Almost no one in Washington, if indeed anyone anywhere, believes the Senate will convict Mr. Clinton on the basis of current evidence.

As recently as two weeks ago, it looked as though the president would escape impeachment by the House, even if the committee recommended it. But that was before the president sent his misguided answers to Chairman Hyde's 81 written questions. The president's evasive, legalistic responses angered many moderate Republicans who had been inclined to oppose impeachment, thus changing the vote count.

The outgoing House has 228 Republicans, 206 Democrats, and one Democrat-leaning independent. Depending on whom one believes, (1) only a handful of Republicans will vote on the floor against impeachment or (2) about 20 will do so. Since at least three Democrats will vote for impeachment, the president is in real trouble if few Republicans defect.

The tone and attitude the president's defense team adopts are key to the outcome. To avoid impeachment, they should keep in mind the need to placate the GOP moderates and coax them back from voting for it. If the defense consists of more attacks on Hyde, Judge Starr, and the process, instead of addressing the facts of the case and presenting reasoned arguments why the president's offenses are not impeachable, the White House had better get ready for the Senate.

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