Impeachment: How inevitable?

As White House lawyers present their case, sentiment hardens in House to let the Senate decide Clinton's future.

America is just waking up to the grave realization that its chief executive could actually be impeached next week.

Across the country - and particularly in official Washington - there's a growing sense of an inevitable collision between Congress and the presidency, with the public as a reluctant ride-along.

"I can't believe it," says a White House official. "It's bizarre," agrees another. "It's stunning," concurs a think tank pundit.

Just two weeks ago, conventional wisdom had President Clinton surviving an impeachment vote or taking a political whipping by agreeing to censure. But now, in two days of defense testimony, his lawyers are fighting to keep him out of the history books as only the second president to be impeached since the nation was founded.

Though it's not over yet, there's no doubt about the potency of the impeachment threat - strong enough to defy public opinion, Senate opposition, and, according to some analysts, the voice of the people as expressed in the midterm elections.

How did a process that began with an aspiration of bipartisanship morph into a series of party-line votes that point toward impeachment - an outcome that, according to a recent CNN poll, 66 percent of Americans reject?

Republicans and Democrats point to a series of developments that hardened the position of GOP lawmakers in the House.

One was Mr. Clinton's "gobbledy gook" answers to 81 yes-or-no questions put to him by the House Judiciary Committee, says Marshall Wittmann at the Heritage Foundation. The president's perceived thumbing of his nose at Congress and the law has incensed GOP lawmakers and their base voters, who "have visceral feelings" on this issue, says Mr. Wittmann. Consequently, many Republicans are ignoring the polls and voting their conscience.

Another reason is GOP majority whip Tom DeLay of Texas, who has stepped into the House leadership vacuum with unequivocal support for impeachment. He also opposes the option of a floor vote on a censure alternative, the preferred choice of Democrats and some moderate Republicans.

Moreover, lawmakers disagree about what an impeachment vote by the House actually means. Some are urging members not to vote for impeachment unless they believe Clinton's offenses warrant his removal. Others see impeachment as the "ultimate censure," a safe move because the Senate, which has the power to try and convict the president, is seen as unlikely to throw Clinton out.

But the public doesn't make such distinctions, warns a Clinton aide. "Americans don't view it that way," he says. "It's like Republicans get up every morning and douse themselves with gasoline and then look for a match." Republicans may believe the public will forget this vote by the 2000 presidential election, but "Democrats won't let people forget."

Comments like these point to one reason the impeachment process is where it is: partisanship. "Both sides are being quite partisan," says Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst in Washington.

Thomas Mann, the "stunned" pundit at the Brookings Institution here, traces the partisanship to the document and video dumps of September. When Democrats saw the evidence wasn't moving the public, they concluded there was no support for impeachment - and dug in.

The only way beyond the impasse, Mr. Mann reasons, "was for Republicans to give in and face something less than impeachment." But Republicans are just as entrenched, and now the result is likely to be a party-line vote for impeachment that lacks all credibility, he says.

Particularly irksome to Republicans is that the White House hasn't addressed the facts of the case. Although the list of White House witnesses portends more of the same, assistant to the president Gregory Craig assured the committee yesterday that Clinton's two days of defense would indeed address the facts.

Mr. Craig urged the committee to "open your mind, open your heart, and focus on the record," which he later described as "edited, modified, qualified, or ignored" in independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report to Congress. He also said Clinton is "genuinely sorry" for the damage he has caused, but added: "Just as no fancy language can obscure the simple fact that what the president did was morally wrong, no amount of rhetoric can change the legal reality that there are no grounds for impeachment."

But if the House were to vote to impeach, Clinton's lawyers presented a kind of insurance policy in one witness, Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman. This scholar argued that an impeachment vote would lose its "constitutional force" if it were passed by this lame-duck Congress.

As Clinton's defense team continues to answer the charges against the president today, the challenge is not to impress a polarized Judiciary Committee - which is set to vote on three or four articles of impeachment by week's end. Rather, it's to sway 15 to 20 moderate Republicans who might yet vote against impeachment.

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