WASHINGTON -- As the House hurtles toward a final decision on impeaching President Clinton, a disbelieving nation could be in for a shock.
"The American people may wake up next Friday morning," said Rep. Charles Schumer of New York, "to discover that the House of Representatives has indeed impeached the president."
Most Americans don't expect it to happen, according to a poll conducted last week. But a profoundly divided House may well vote this week to recommend Clinton's removal from office, just one month after an election that seemed to have made impeachment impossible.
The latest count shows Clinton at least a half-dozen votes short of the support he needs to avoid becoming only the second president to suffer the ignominy of impeachment. The House could vote as early as Thursday.
How exactly did things get this far? Didn't the election prove that impeachment was a loser, politically speaking? And where -- or when -- will all this finally end?
According to those on both sides, the country has been drawn in recent weeks to the brink of a constitutional crisis, not by a single act, but by a series of post-election events. They include: White House miscalculations. Thinking that the threat of impeachment had passed, Clinton and his advisers let their guard down at the exact moment the danger was starting to increase. Though he now recognizes how perilous his position has become, the president is described as being in a state of "disbelief" about the week's events.
A scaled-down House inquiry. By avoiding a lengthy investigation, Republicans guaranteed that there would be more members of their party voting on impeachment than in the new Congress that takes over next month. It also meant that the decisive votes against Clinton might be cast by Republican representatives who were defeated for re-election.
Democratic election victories. Surprisingly, the loss of five Republican House seats enhanced, rather than reduced, the likelihood of impeachment.
Last month's setback at the polls jolted Republicans and forced the resignation of Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose final blunder was relying too heavily on impeachment as a campaign issue. That post-election chaos in the House strengthened the hand of Rep. Tom DeLay, the fiercest impeachment hawk in the Republican leadership, who has emerged as a pivotal figure in the drive to punish the president.
Senate awaits trial
With the critical House vote only days away, no one can say with precision how the crisis will end. It remains unlikely that Clinton will be forced from office by the Senate, even if he is impeached by the House.
No Democratic support for impeachment has materialized in the Senate, and it would take at least 12 Democratic votes there to meet the constitutional requirement for removing the president.
But should a majority of House members vote to impeach, the matter would be sent to the Senate for further action, probably early next month. The Senate Republican leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, has promised a trial, which he has said could take from a few days to a few weeks. The only other presidential impeachment trial, of Andrew Johnson in 1868, lasted three months.
In some respects, it's not surprising that the severe sanction of impeachment may soon be Clinton's legacy. From the outset, there were warnings that halting the process would be extremely tough once it got rolling.
"Putting this thing behind us is not going to be an easy thing to do," prophesied Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the former Democratic leader, in a speech Sept. 9, the day independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigative report reached the Capitol with two van-loads of evidence.
The House vote the next month, authorizing a formal impeachment inquiry, was expected. What happened a few weeks later, on Election Day, was not.
Gingrich, stunned by his party's unexpected loss of seats, acknowledged that Republicans had underestimated how quickly the public had become fed up with the investigation of Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and his testimony before a grand jury.
The next day, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde went public with a plan for a pared-back review of Starr's material. The inquiry could be finished by mid-December, he announced, assuming the White House cooperated. There would just one witness, Starr himself, plus a letter that was being sent to Clinton, seeking responses to 81 questions that grew out of the independent counsel's report.
"Clearly there are not enough votes to move this through the House," Rep. Mark E. Souder, a conservative Republican from Indiana, said a week after the election, as he declared his opposition to impeachment.