When House impeachment hearings opened, everyone wascertain of one thing: Congress would never impeach President Clinton.
Today, that prediction is very much in doubt. The House of Representativesseems ready to approve at least one article of impeachment next week, sendingthe matter to the Senate for trial.
This represents a breathtaking reversal of fortune for Clinton, who lookedto be home-free last month as hearings began.
If Clinton is impeached, it wouldn't be the first time conventional wisdomwas proved wrong this year. The entire impeachment saga can be viewed as achain of confounding events, each more unexpected than the next.
Indeed, the growing consensus that the House will vote to impeach thepresident may, paradoxically, be a sign that it won't happen.
Members of Congress are just starting to drift back into town, and thereality of the vote they are about to cast is only beginning to sink in.
At the same time, it is increasingly clear that congressional leaders areexercising far less control over the impeachment process than many might haveexpected.
The result has been a chaotic process, in which a number of myths havebeen created, and then obliterated. Among them:
Impeachment must be a bipartisan process.
Rep. Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, breathedlife into this one way back in January. After the Monica Lewinsky scandalbroke, the veteran Illinois representative said that any attempt to impeachClinton would have to involve both parties.
"I can't stress this too much," Hyde said, mindful that without Democraticsupport, impeachment would fail in the Senate. "It has to elicit bipartisansupport. So nothing much will happen until the Democrats decide somethingshould happen."
In October, the House authorized a formal inquiry largely along partylines, with five of every six Democrats voting against.
This week, the Judiciary Committee is expected to approve articles ofimpeachment against Clinton without any Democratic backing. And next week,fewer than 10 Democrats, out of 206, are likely to favor impeachment when thefull House votes.
Impeachment is essentially a political process. A president cannot beimpeached unless the public approves.
If there has been one constant throughout the Lewinsky mess, it's publicopinion. A clear majority of Americans has opposed impeachment from the start.By a roughly 2-to-1 margin, the country believes that the president should beallowed to serve out his term.
The results of last month's election served only to make the prospect ofimpeachment more remote.
Hyde said during the campaign that a status-quo election would makeimpeachment less likely. On the day after the election, he began talking forthe first time about censuring Clinton as an alternative to impeachment.
Today, polls show the public still clearly opposes impeachment. But, asRepublican Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee put it: "The polls no longer are goingto dictate this."
Not the national polls, at least. GOP leaders have made it plain thatHouse members are free to vote their conscience -- or follow the wishes oftheir constituents, who, in most Republican districts, favor impeachment.
Clinton's evasive answers to the 81 questions from the Judiciary Committeeturned the tide against him.
On Nov. 27, the president responded, in writing, to 81 questions posed bythe committee. He acknowledged having misled the country about the nature ofhis relationship with Lewinsky, but he denied having lied under oath about it.
Clinton's answers, which were highly legalistic and often evasive, areoften cited as the reason House Republicans suddenly seem to see himimpeached.
But the shift against Clinton -- if indeed there was one -- took placesometime earlier.
House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, the leading anti-Clintonhard-liner, said on Nov. 25 that there were enough House votes to impeach thepresident on at least one article of lying under oath. That was two daysbefore Clinton delivered his 81 answers.
There is an alternative explanation for the Republican tilt towardimpeachment. It grows out of a pragmatic, if cynical, reading of next week'sdebate in the House and has created the possibly mistaken impression that:
Impeachment is a "free vote" for Republicans, because they won't bepunished for it.
Incoming House Speaker Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana has calledimpeachment "the most weighty vote of a member of Congress' career." For onlythe second time in history, the House will consider whether to recommend thatthe president be tried by the Senate.
But the Senate is unlikely to convict Clinton. Thus, House Republicanscould satisfy their core conservative supporters -- the main group lusting forimpeachment -- without risking a backlash from independents and other moderatevoters, who will have forgotten impeachment by the next election.
That's the argument being pushed by DeLay and other impeachment hawks. Buta prolonged trial in the Senate could disrupt the legislative agendas of bothparties and allow Democrats to run in 2000 against a do-nothing Republican-ledCongress.
And a partisan vote to impeach Clinton could reinforce the negativeimpression that some swing voters already have of the Republican Party,including the notion that the GOP is firmly under the thumb of religiousconservatives and other hard-liners.
That could make it harder for Republicans to take back the White House andkeep control of Congress in 2000.
Over the next week or so, a handful of moderate Republicans will employsuch arguments as they attempt to persuade GOP colleagues to censure Clinton,rather than impeach him.
But if Republican leaders refuse to permit the House to vote on a censuremotion, the odds that Clinton will be impeached will greatly increase.
And that would test the ultimate in conventional wisdom:
The Senate will never vote to convict.
At the moment, everyone is convinced that there is not enough support inthe Senate for Clinton's removal from office.
For impeachment to succeed, the Constitution requires the votes oftwo-thirds of the Senate -- 67 senators -- in a body that has 55 Republicansand 45 Democrats.
With some Republican moderates considered reluctant to convict, and nosign that any Democrat wants to punish Clinton so severely, there might noteven be 50 votes.
But as Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who has calledfor Clinton's censure, has warned: "No member of the Senate has indicated howhe or she would vote. So those projections are really intuition."
And Hyde, in refusing to predict what might happen in the Senate, observedyesterday: "Opinions change from week to week, from day to day."