Political bombshells fall in Washington

Sun Reporter

At 1: 19 p.m. yesterday, history was made on the floor ofthe House of Representatives. There was a muffled cheer. A few spectators inthe gallery applauded.

At that moment, as the decisive 218th vote was cast against him, Bill Clinton became the first elected president to be impeached. It was the subduedhighlight of a day of human and political drama. But it wasn't the biggestsurprise.

While U.S. missiles roared over Iraq for a fourth and final day, politicalbombshells were flying in Washington.

The one that fell hardest at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was clearly the Housevote to impeach Clinton and recommend his removal from office by the Senate.Even though impeachment had become inevitable, an indelible blot has beenattached forever to his legacy.

But the most ominous blow may have been the one unleashed by HouseSpeaker-designate Robert L. Livingston.

Standing in the well of the House, the epicenter of the capital'scorrosive partisan combat, the Republican leader called on Clinton to stepdown in order to "heal the wounds that you have created."

Amid furious shouts of "You resign!" from outraged Democrats such asCalifornia's Rep. Maxine Waters, Livingston raised his right hand to silencethe chamber. Then he stunned his colleagues by revealing that he would do justthat.

"I must set the example that I hope President Clinton will follow," saidthe 55-year-old Louisianian, begging forgiveness from his wife and friends forthe marital infidelities he revealed on the eve of the impeachment debate.

Livingston's decision can only make it harder for Clinton to fightimpeachment, since it feeds directly into the Republican strategy that isdesigned to force him to leave office.

Call for resignation

Now that they have impeached him, Republicans have begun a concertedeffort to force his resignation, since the Senate seems unlikely to convicthim.

During the House debate and in statements released afterward, Republicansdemanded that Clinton follow Livingston's example and step down for the goodof the country, thus sparing himself and the nation the ordeal of animpeachment trial.

Late yesterday, Clinton made it clear that he intends to fiercely resistpressure to quit.

At a carefully choreographed White House ceremony, Clinton said he iscommitted to remaining in office for the final two years of his term. "Untilthe last hour of the last day," he said to applause from a gathering of HouseDemocrats.

In a more-than-symbolic gesture that revealed one element of his plan tosave his presidency, Clinton strode onto the South Lawn arm-in-arm with hiswife. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who began last week to emerge as a more visibledefender of her husband after keeping a low profile for months, could well behis most potent weapon in the coming struggle to mold public opinion.

For now, it is mostly Republicans who are calling for the president'sresignation. Only three House Democrats have said he should quit or considerresigning.

Studying public opinion

But the ultimate verdict on his tenure will be rendered by the public.

Politicians in both parties will be scrutinizing polls for any sign thatAmericans, weary of the prolonged scandal in Washington, are ready for Clintonto end it by quitting and turning the job over to Vice President Al Gore.

Even before yesterday's House vote, there were indications that a growingnumber of Americans wanted Clinton to step aside if impeachment was sent tothe Senate for a trial. Roughly two in five Americans -- 43 percent -- wouldprefer that he resign, according to the latest CBS/New York Times pollconducted before the impeachment. Only a narrow majority -- 53 percent -- saidit would be better if he remain as president if impeached.

At the moment, all that stands between Clinton and removal from office are45 Democratic senators.

Unlike in the House, where he was impeached on a highly partisan vote, itwould take a bipartisan majority in the Senate to remove him after a trial andconviction. At least 12 Democrats would have to vote against the president forthat to happen.

But if a large majority of Americans makes it clear that they would preferthat Clinton resign and spare the country further turmoil, there could beheavy pressure on senators to demand that he go.

That may have been why Clinton responded so swiftly when Livingstonannounced his resignation. Almost immediately, the president sent his presssecretary, Joe Lockhart, out to tell reporters that Clinton wished Livingstonwould reconsider.

Seeking prompt resolution

But with Senate action at least weeks away, time may be Clinton's biggestenemy.

The president and his defenders are pushing for a speedy resolution in theSenate. Democrats acknowledge that a trial could tie up the Senate for monthsand could effectively paralyze the government.

The Republican leader of the Senate, Trent Lott, under pressure fromconservatives in his own party, has said that there must be a trial. Thatcould take anywhere from a few days to several weeks, he has said, and mightnot begin until late winter.

After he was impeached, Clinton stressed that wants the matter resolved ina "prompt manner" and indicated that he would be open to a compromise that is"reasonable, bipartisan and proportionate." The president has indicated hewould embrace a formal resolution of rebuke.

Historical significance

Acutely sensitive to how history will view his presidency, Clinton hasmade no direct comment yet on how he felt when he became the first chiefexecutive in 130 years to be impeached.

Instead, it was left to Gore, who termed yesterday "the saddest day I haveseen" in Washington, to address that point -- and to buck up his boss in theprocess.

History will regard Clinton "as one of our greatest presidents," Goresaid. "The verdict of history will undo the unworthy judgment rendered" by ahighly partisan Congress.

But the nightmare scenario at the White House is that Clinton might beforced to enter the history books alongside the last president who faced animpeachment threat. In 1974, after articles of impeachment were approved by aHouse committee, Richard M. Nixon resigned rather than be impeached by thefull House and was replaced by his vice president, Gerald Ford.

"Our long national nightmare is over," Ford said after taking the oath ofoffice.

As a battered and exhausted capital begins Christmas week with animpeached president and a leaderless House of Representatives, the nation'slatest ordeal may have barely begun.

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