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Saturday, December 19, 1998 Published at 01:22 GMT

Bitter debate on Clinton's fate

Bill Clinton facing the press on Friday

You can watch BBC News coverage of the impeachment debate and developments in Iraq

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Democrats and Republicans have clashed bitterly in an historic debate on the impeachment of President Bill Clinton over his handling of the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Tom Carver fo BBC One's Six O'Clock News: "The atmosphere is partisan and acrimonious"
Fierce words have been exchanged on the floor of the House of Representatives in this, the last-stop debate before possible impeachment.

The marathon session is set to run until 2200 local time (0300 GMT) and members will reconvene on Saturday morning to vote on the motion.

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If Mr Clinton is impeached, as seems likely, he will go for a full-scale trial in the Senate, where a two-thirds majority of senators is needed to remove him from office.

Click here for an explanation of the impeachment process.

Henry Hyde, chairman of the House judiciary committee, which drew up the four articles of impeachment against Mr Clinton, told members it was their obligation to defend the rule of law.

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"No man or woman ... can be above the law in a democracy," Mr Hyde told the packed house.

Four impeachment charges have been levelled at Mr Clinton. If any one is voted through, he will become only the second president to be impeached in the history of the United States.

But Democrats have repeatedly tried to avoid impeachment, preferring instead a censure motion on Mr Clinton.

Dick Gephardt, the Minority Leader of the House, reaffirmed this view to the House.

Henry Hyde: "Catch the falling flag as we keep our appointment with history"
"We are being denied an alternative to impeachment. We all say that this is a vote of conscience. All we are asking is that we get to vote our conscience," he said.

Meanwhile, the president's supporters outside Congress have been speaking in his defence.

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Hillary Clinton broke her long silence on the matter, saying Americans shared her "approval and pride" in the way the president was doing his job and calling for the country to "practice reconciliation".

Vice President Al Gore, speaking in a radio interview, said he was "fighting mad" about Republicans' conduct in the House debate.

In the House, sharp words and bitter sentiments have characterised proceedings.

Democrat Maxine Waters called the impeachment process a "Republican coup d'etat".

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Her fellow party member Bob Menendez said it was a "travesty" that Republicans had proceeded with impeachment rather than settle for the lesser punishment of censure.

"I warn my colleagues, you will reap the bitter harvest of the unfair partisan seed you sow today," he said.

Democrat John Conyers said: "Impeachment was designed to rid this nation of traitors and tyrants, not attempts to cover up an extra-marital affair."

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Peter King was the first Republican to announce he would vote against impeachment.

"As a matter of conscience, I must vote against impeachment, and I rue this day," he said.

But most in his party staunchly defended their efforts.

Sam Johnson, a former prisoner of war, said Mr Clinton's actions had "made a mockery of the people who had fought for this country and are fighting for this nation today".

Earlier, Democrats failed to further delay the already rescheduled debate because of US military action in Iraq. The session had been due to start on Thursday but was put back 24 hours because of events in the Gulf.

David Bonior, the Democrat Chief Whip, said: "We do not believe we should be here today while our men and women are fighting abroad."

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The 435 members are discussing two impeachment articles of perjury and one each of obstruction of justice and abuse of power.

With loyalties in the House fiercely split down party lines, it seems inevitable that at least one article will be approved by a simple-majority, thereby impeaching the president.

The BBC's Washington correspondent, Tom Carver, said the vote "looks pretty likely" to go against the president by a margin of eight to 10 votes.

However, Mr Clinton would not be immediately removed from office. Instead he would go for trial in the Senate - the upper house of government - where a two-thirds majority is needed to remove Mr Clinton.

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