Fight becomes mortal combat

December 19, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun National Staff

WASHINGTON - Bill Clinton was consigned to an unwanted place in American history today as the first elected president ever to be impeached.

A Senate trial of the president - an extraordinary spectacle no living person has witnessed - will be gaveled to order in coming weeks.

While the entire nation tries to grasp the staggering significance of events that seemed impossible a month ago, official Washington has moved on to the next question: Will Clinton's presidency survive?

The answer is not nearly so clear as it once appeared to be. Today's breathtaking announcement by House Speaker-designate Robert L. Livingston - that he is resigning in the wake of disclosures of marital infidelity - will only increase the pressure on Clinton to do so as well.

Today's largely party-line vote of impeachment deepens the corrosive partisanship that pervades this shellshocked capital. Clinton and conservative Republicans in Congress remain locked in mortal political combat. And everyone else - including the American public - is caught in between.

"A reckless president and a Republican Congress driven by a blind animus for him have brought us to this moment in history," retiring Rep. Vic Fazio said on the House [See Analysis, 8a] floor during debate leading up to today's vote.

Added a fellow California Democrat, Rep. Zoe Lofgren: "The country is waiting for grown-ups to walk into this chamber and stop this madness."

That may not happen soon.

Throughout the impeachment process, pressure from the conservative wing of the Republican Party has stifled all attempts to find any solution short of a Senate trial and Clinton's removal from office. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, under similar pressure from his conservative colleagues, has said there will be no deal to head off a trial when the Senate takes up impeachment next month.

Unlike the House of Representatives, where a simple majority is enough to impeach, there must be a two-thirds vote of senators to remove the president from office. That should be enough to preserve Clinton's job, because at least 12 Democrats would have to vote for his ouster.

But no one knows whether the public will have the patience to let the Senate go through a lengthy process that ties up the government for months, preventing anything else from happening.

For the first time in the nearly yearlong scandal, time may now be Clinton's enemy.

Pressure to resign

Pressure on him to resign is certain to grow in the aftermath of today's vote. Yesterday, two Democratic representatives, Louise M. Slaughter of New York and William O. Lipinski of Illinois, joined the list of those who say the president should at least consider stepping down if he is impeached.

One of Clinton's most ardent defenders, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, warns that impeachment is "simply the beginning of the process." Republicans will use today's vote "as club to drive the president from office," by contending that, because he has been impeached, he should spare the nation the trauma of a trial and resign.

Clinton insists he won't step down. Public opinion, which has sustained him through the many crises of his presidency, would have to desert him to force a resignation.

But the president's standing with the public may have begun to erode, recent polling suggests. Exactly what Clinton will, or can, do to reverse it isn't clear. His refusal, or inability, to give wavering Republican moderates a reason to resist impeachment was the final act that made impeachment inevitable.

Yesterday, underscoring the hopelessness of his situation in the House, Clinton hunkered down at the White House, out of public view. When Hillary Rodham Clinton made a rare statement in defense of her husband for TV cameras, she appeared to be responding to pleas from panicky White House aides, who feel she must use more of her considerable popularity to help save his skin.

Lost credibility

As the House debate made clear, Clinton's refusal to admit that he lied under oath has shredded his credibility and heightened the mistrust between himself and congressional Republicans. Several Republicans again questioned the timing of Clinton's decision to launch a missile strike against Iraq on the eve of the scheduled impeachment vote.

Democrats claimed that the president's lies about a private sexual affair were not grounds for removing him from office, since they did not amount to an offense that threatened irreparable harm to the country.

But Rep. Tom Campbell, a soft-spoken Republican moderate from California, charged that Clinton's failure to tell the truth before a federal grand jury "incapacitates him from effectively serving as our president."

"I cannot trust him again," said Campbell, a former Stanford University law professor. "If it is in his interest not to tell the truth, he will not tell the truth."

On to the Senate

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