Perhaps the first thing to remember after Saturday's historic events is that the United States government is still fully functioning. Bill Clinton remains president, and there is still a Speaker of the House: Newt Gingrich, whose term ends Jan. 6.
In the end, the House voted to impeach Mr. Clinton on an almost straight party-line vote. But members approved only two of the four proposed articles - those for perjury before a federal grand jury and obstruction of justice. Obviously, members seriously weighed the evidence.
Impeachment is an accusation. Only after a trial and conviction in the Senate can the president be removed from office. It is doubtful things will come to that. A two-thirds vote is necessary to convict, and the political balance in the Senate is 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats. Both groups are more moderate and independent than their House counterparts and will not vote in lock step.
Sadly, the president struck the wrong note on the White House lawn after the vote, holding the equivalent of a partisan campaign rally. Genuine contrition and humility on his part are still needed. The president, after all, bears primary responsibility for the current situation. His poor judgments in the area of morality avalanched into a constitutional crisis. And though he says he has tried for six years to bring Washington together, in many ways Clinton now reaps what has been sown in divisive relations with successive Congresses, Democratic and Republican.
The House debate was largely a replay of the Judiciary Committee hearings. Both sides continued to talk past each other. Republicans asserted they were upholding the Constitution by insisting that no one, not even the president, is above the law. Democrats insisted they were upholding the Constitution by refusing to lower what they saw as the standard for impeachment.
Unusual Senate dynamics
So the matter now goes to the Senate, where Clinton may have more cause for hope. At any time the Senate can adjourn the trial by a simple majority vote. In other words, if all 45 Democrats vote together, of which there is no guarantee, they would need only six Republicans to join them to dismiss the case. Instead of majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi running the floor, that simple majority of senators will control the process, greatly changing the usual Senate dynamics.
But it may never come to that. The president, Democratic senators, and moderate Republicans will try to complete a deal to censure the president instead. Again, only a handful of Republicans need go along. Many House Republicans would be more willing to consider censure if it came from the Senate, which they see as the proper place to determine punishment.
This outcome, as we've said before, would carry the needed weight of rebuke to Clinton while putting down a marker future presidents must heed.
Cries for the president to resign are intensifying. That's not the right course, for two reasons: (1) The prospect of senatorial censure includes the prospect of presidential humility and reform. The nation has important tasks ahead, and a contrite and thus morally strengthened president could contribute much to the process. That possibility should be held open. (2) If a House controlled by one party were, in effect, to force the resignation of a president of the other party by a simple majority vote, this would approximate a parliamentary vote of no confidence. That's clearly at odds with the framers' separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers.
Likewise, the withdrawal of Rep. Robert Livingston (R) of Louisiana as Speaker-to-be is deeply regrettable, if understandable. He is an effective and dedicated public servant who, with his reformation, would have had much to offer his party and country. At this writing, Rep. Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois appears to be the most likely replacement. He has leadership qualities both the House and the country need at this time.
Much has been said about the president's ability to compartmentalize - to separate events from each other, and private life from public life. Could it not be that the moral here is that such compartmentalization has inherent flaws? Morality transcends events, and must therefore transfuse every event, private or public. Seen from that perspective, character and reformation do count. The opportunity in this extraordinary chapter in American politics may be for society to see through the delusion that morality is irrelevant, and thus set a steadier course for the nation.
Let us pray that will happen.