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Friday, October 9, 1998 Published at 02:37 GMT 03:37 UK

Green light for impeachment inquiry

Bridget Kendall: no real decision until after elections
For only the third time in its history, America has taken the dramatic step to begin a presidential impeachment inquiry.

Members of the House of Representatives voted to launch the formal, historic investigation of Bill Clinton after a tense and, at times, impassioned debate.

[ image: The House sits in historic session]
The House sits in historic session
After the vote President Clinton said: "It's in the hands of Congress and the people of this country - ultimately, in the hands of God. There's nothing I can do."

The House voted 258-176 to pursue a far-reaching Watergate-style inquiry drawn up by Republicans. Thirty-one Democrats voted with their political opponents for the inquiry. All Republicans voted in in favour.

The inquiry, which has no time limit and is not confined to the Monica Lewinsky affair, is the first constitutional step towards removing Bill Clinton from office.

President Clinton's reaction to the vote
Ultimately, a trial in the Senate would require a two-thirds majority to oust the president.

But the BBC Washington Correspondent, Paul Reynolds, said even if Republicans secure gains in the November elections, few people think they could muster such a majority.

He says there is still the expectation, though not the certainty, that some compromise will be sought in the form of censure by both Houses of Congress.

Democrat plan thrown out

A more limited probe mooted by Democrats was voted down by the House by 236 votes to 198 with 10 Democrats voting against and one Republican in support..

Mr Clinton faces 15 charges, any one of which could be used to topple him from office. They include perjury, witness tampering and obstruction of justice.

Meanwhile, it is reported that Mr Clinton's sworn evidence in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case will be made public on 19 October.

[ image: Henry Hyde:
Henry Hyde: "A rotten duty, but we have to do it"
Speaking after the momentous vote, Republican Henry Hyde, said: "We want to get this behind us and behind the country and move on.

"It's an onerous, miserable, rotten duty, but we have to do it or we break faith with the people who sent us here," said Mr Hyde, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee which formulated the proceedings.

Mr Hyde, who will oversee the inquiry, promised to avoid a "fishing expedition" and asked his Democratic colleagues to work with the Republican majority.

"Too much hangs in the balance for us not to rise above," partisan politics, he said.

Tom Carver reports on the debate
The 31 "rebel" Democrats who voted with the political adversaries on the Republican plan are thought to divide into two camps - those with a moral objection to Mr Clinton's alleged conduct and those facing though battles in next month's mid-term elections.

Shortly before the debate, the House Democrat Leader, Dick Gephardt, made an impassioned plea to halt the Republicans' march.

[ image:  ]
He urged that "for the good of the country" any probe should be over before the new year, as set out in the Democratic resolution.

"The world economy is in a shambles, our own economy is threatened. Issues like education, health care and economics need to be on the front burner of [the new] congress," said Mr Gephardt.

As the debate unfolded, the White House issued another attack on Republican efforts that might oust the president.

"We don't believe the process has been particularly fair, but as we move forward it is our hope that some of that basic fairness will return," said the presidential spokesman Joseph Lockhart.

He indicated Mr Clinton was unlikely to comment directly after the vote.

"The issue concerns him. But he remains focused on the job he has been elected to do."

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