If news from Washington these days reads like a supermarket potboiler, the temptation is to skip to the end and see what happens. Few of the possible scenarios are pretty.
A year from now, Bill Clinton may well still be president. Or he may not be. Either way, the presidency will likely still be reeling from the battering it's taken at the hands of the man who still occupies it, with a powerful assist from the independent counsel who has pursued him with unparalleled zeal.
At heart, say old Washington hands and political observers, the future of the presidency and the nation - and not of Mr. Clinton or the two major political parties - is the most important consideration for Congress as it weighs Clinton's alleged infractions.
An impeachment proceeding "will be a very divisive thing," says former Democratic Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois.
"You end up with a wounded presidency. On the other hand, we don't want get into a posture where it becomes too easy to get rid of a president. So things have to be weighed," he says.
A variety of scenarios could play out:
* Clinton could be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate, thus removing him from office. The Senate could fail to convict, as it did with President Andrew Johnson in 1868, who finished his term but left the presidency badly weakened for a generation.
* Clinton could resign, but nothing in his life and political career suggests he would take that course unless it seemed certain he would be forced out anyway.
* Congressional censure or "censure-plus" - scenarios for which there is no road map - also remain live options as Clinton's supporters argue for a sanction short of impeachment.
What seems likely is that the House will at least launch an impeachment inquiry. The House Judiciary Committee is examining the allegations in independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report - and the 36 boxes of supporting material - to decide if there's enough to warrant drafting articles of impeachment and putting the president on trial.
In just a few weeks, Congress will recess to campaign for November elections - and hear from constituents directly. That long hiatus back home could prove crucial to Clinton's future.
"If the message from Main Street is, 'We don't want to go through with this,' then the new Congress responds to that," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution here.
Faced with strong public opinion against impeachment, the House leadership may lose its resolve and decide that a lesser punishment may be a way out. Polls show censure is, for now, the public's preference for dealing with Clinton, whose job approval remains solidly above 60 percent.
Ultimately, analysts agree, the House's ruling Republicans aren't going to go for censure unless they're certain that pursuing impeachment will go against their political interests. And if they conclude that censure isn't punishment enough, there's also "censure-plus" - a brand-new, ill-defined concept that would involve a rebuke from Congress and some other punishment, such as a fine.
For now, Republicans are insisting that censure would amount to a slap on the wrist for a man who Mr. Starr alleges committed perjury, obstruction of justice, witness tampering, and abuse of power - all potentially impeachable offenses.
So censure isn't a serious option on the table yet. Starr hasn't handed over reports on the Clintons' Whitewater land deal and "filegate," the case of the confidential FBI files that wound up in White House hands. The beginning of this process - the airing of charges - isn't even complete.
What's clear is that, the longer the battle continues, the more it distracts from important national and international business. Though President Andrew Johnson hung on through his impeachment trial and near-conviction, he lost control of his presidency.
"What came out of that, institutionally, was a strong and confident Congress and a rather weakened president," says Alonzo Hamby, a historian at Ohio University in Miami. It took Teddy Roosevelt to restore the presidency to its powerful place, he says.
After President Nixon's resignation, the recovery process was shorter; the strong reign of Ronald Reagan brought the office back to full potency. But Professor Hamby says President Reagan was able to do that primarily in the foreign-policy arena, which may not be a possibility in today's post-cold-war world.
FOR some observers, talk of how to punish Clinton amounts to so much hair-splitting in the face of a larger truth: The president's credibility is shattered. "I don't think it's going to come down to, is it an impeachable offense or will it be censure or censure-plus or censure with oak-leaf clusters," says former Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming, now director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard. "The real issue is the ability to lead."
Mr. Simpson recalls going to meetings in the White House and having no reason to disbelieve Clinton. Now, he says, "we have every reason to believe some of the things he was saying weren't true. And this is a crippling thing when you're in politics. Your word is your currency."
For some, talk of how to punish Clinton amounts to hair-splitting in the face of a larger truth: His credibility is shattered.