Clinton denies putting pressure on Democrats over inquiry vote


As the US House of Representatives prepares to open an impeachment inquiry today, President Clinton has told the members they should vote according to their conscience.

The House will vote on a Republican resolution to open a full inquiry into charges that the President has committed impeachable offences arising out of his initial denial of an affair with the former White House intern, Ms Monica Lewinsky. The Republican majority will ensure that the resolution passes, so most attention is focused on how many Democrats will also vote for it.

President Clinton, Mrs Hillary Clinton and the Vice-President, Mr Al Gore, have been making calls to Democrats arguing that the allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice in the report of the independent counsel, Mr Kenneth Starr, are not impeachable offences. But many Democrats fear they will lose support in November's mid-term elections if they are seen to vote against the impeachment inquiry.

A vote on whether to impeach Mr Clinton would be taken only at the end of such an inquiry conducted by the House Judiciary Committee.

The President is denying that he is putting pressure on Democrats to vote against the inquiry. He said he was returning calls from Democrats. He said every member should cast "a vote of principle and conscience".

"It's up to others to decide what happens to me and ultimately it's going to be up to the American people to make a clear statement there," Mr Clinton told reporters as he received the Hungarian Prime Minister, Mr Viktor Orban, in the Oval Office.

The 206 Democrats are reported to be deeply divided over how to vote so as to ensure that they will not be damaged at the polls on November 3rd. There will be no problem in supporting a Democratic alternative resolution which would set strict limits on the future impeachment inquiry, but it is sure to be defeated as the Republicans have a 22-vote majority (not 11 as reported in The Irish Times yesterday).

Democrats will then have to decide whether to vote for or against the Republican resolution, which is modelled on that of the Watergate inquiry into President Nixon. This would allow an investigation ranging beyond the Lewinsky scandal and would not be limited in time, although the chairman of the Judiciary Committee that would conduct the inquiry, Mr Henry Hyde, has said he would try to conclude it by the end of this year.

While liberal Democrats argue that the party members should vote against the open-ended Republican resolution in keeping with public opinion which wants to see an early settlement, the conservatives and moderates tend to agree with the Democrat who said that "if you see a train coming you get on it".

Mr Jim Moran, an Irish-American Democrat from Virginia who has been lobbied by Mrs Clinton, announced that he would vote with the Republicans on this issue. "Why are we falling on our swords for a vote we are going to lose?" he asked.

Both parties are giving estimates on how many Democrats are likely to vote with the Republicans but pitched in such a way that they can both claim a victory when the result is announced.

Mr Marty Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the number of defectors was falling rapidly. At one point he thought it would be as many as 120 of the 206 Democrats but now it was half that, he said. In the vote last month for the release of the Starr report and attached documents, 138 Democrats voted with the Republicans.

But if 50 or more Democrats vote today with the Republicans, this would be claimed by the latter as a victory for bipartisanship.