WASHINGTON -- When House impeachment hearings opened, everyone was certain of one thing: Congress would never impeach President Clinton.
Today, that prediction is very much in doubt. The House of Representatives seems ready to approve at least one article of impeachment next week, sending the matter to the Senate for trial.
This represents a breathtaking reversal of fortune for Clinton, who looked to be home-free last month as hearings began.
If Clinton is impeached, it wouldn't be the first time conventional wisdom was proved wrong this year. The entire impeachment saga can be viewed as a chain of confounding events, each more unexpected than the next.
Indeed, the growing consensus that the House will vote to impeach the president may, paradoxically, be a sign that it won't happen.
Members of Congress are just starting to drift back into town, and the reality 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 are exercising far less control over the impeachment process than many might have expected.
The result has been a chaotic process, in which a number of myths have been created, and then obliterated. Among them:
Impeachment must be a bipartisan process.
Rep. Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, breathed life into this one way back in January. After the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, the veteran Illinois representative said that any attempt to impeach Clinton would have to involve both parties.
"I can't stress this too much," Hyde said, mindful that without Democratic support, impeachment would fail in the Senate. "It has to elicit bipartisan support. So nothing much will happen until the Democrats decide something should happen."
In October, the House authorized a formal inquiry largely along party lines, with five of every six Democrats voting against.
This week, the Judiciary Committee is expected to approve articles of impeachment against Clinton without any Democratic backing. And next week, fewer than 10 Democrats, out of 206, are likely to favor impeachment when the full House votes.
Impeachment is essentially a political process. A president cannot be impeached unless the public approves.
If there has been one constant throughout the Lewinsky mess, it's public opinion. 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 be allowed to serve out his term.
The results of last month's election served only to make the prospect of impeachment more remote.
Hyde said during the campaign that a status-quo election would make impeachment less likely. On the day after the election, he began talking for the first time about censuring Clinton as an alternative to impeachment.
Today, polls show the public still clearly opposes impeachment. But, as Republican Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee put it: "The polls no longer are going to dictate this."
Not the national polls, at least. GOP leaders have made it plain that House members are free to vote their conscience -- or follow the wishes of their constituents, who, in most Republican districts, favor impeachment.
Clinton's evasive answers to the 81 questions from the Judiciary Committee turned the tide against him.
On Nov. 27, the president responded, in writing, to 81 questions posed by the committee. He acknowledged having misled the country about the nature of his relationship with Lewinsky, but he denied having lied under oath about it.
Clinton's answers, which were highly legalistic and often evasive, are often cited as the reason House Republicans suddenly seem to see him impeached.
Change occurred earlier
But the shift against Clinton -- if indeed there was one -- took place sometime earlier.
House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, the leading anti-Clinton hard-liner, said on Nov. 25 that there were enough House votes to impeach the president on at least one article of lying under oath. That was two days before Clinton delivered his 81 answers.
There is an alternative explanation for the Republican tilt toward impeachment. It grows out of a pragmatic, if cynical, reading of next week's debate in the House and has created the possibly mistaken impression that:
Impeachment is a "free vote" for Republicans, because they won't be punished for it.
Incoming House Speaker Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana has called impeachment "the most weighty vote of a member of Congress' career." For only the second time in history, the House will consider whether to recommend that the president be tried by the Senate.
But the Senate is unlikely to convict Clinton. Thus, House Republicans could satisfy their core conservative supporters -- the main group lusting for impeachment -- without risking a backlash from independents and other moderate voters, who will have forgotten impeachment by the next election.
That's the argument being pushed by DeLay and other impeachment hawks. But a prolonged trial in the Senate could disrupt the legislative agendas of both parties and allow Democrats to run in 2000 against a do-nothing Republican-led Congress.
And a partisan vote to impeach Clinton could reinforce the negative impression that some swing voters already have of the Republican Party, including the notion that the GOP is firmly under the thumb of religious conservatives and other hard-liners.
That could make it harder for Republicans to take back the White House and keep control of Congress in 2000.
Over the next week or so, a handful of moderate Republicans will employ such 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 censure motion, 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 in the Senate for Clinton's removal from office.
For impeachment to succeed, the Constitution requires the votes of two-thirds of the Senate -- 67 senators -- in a body that has 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats.
With some Republican moderates considered reluctant to convict, and no sign that any Democrat wants to punish Clinton so severely, there might not even be 50 votes.
But as Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who has called for Clinton's censure, has warned: "No member of the Senate has indicated how he or she would vote. So those projections are really intuition."
And Hyde, in refusing to predict what might happen in the Senate, observed yesterday: "Opinions change from week to week, from day to day."
Pub Date: 12/08/98