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Impeachment: How inevitable?

As White House lawyers present their case, sentiment hardens in House to let the Senate decide Clinton's future.

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America is just waking up to the grave realization that its chief executive could actually be impeached next week.

Across the country - and particularly in official Washington - there's a growing sense of an inevitable collision between Congress and the presidency, with the public as a reluctant ride-along.

"I can't believe it," says a White House official. "It's bizarre," agrees another. "It's stunning," concurs a think tank pundit.

Just two weeks ago, conventional wisdom had President Clinton surviving an impeachment vote or taking a political whipping by agreeing to censure. But now, in two days of defense testimony, his lawyers are fighting to keep him out of the history books as only the second president to be impeached since the nation was founded.

Though it's not over yet, there's no doubt about the potency of the impeachment threat - strong enough to defy public opinion, Senate opposition, and, according to some analysts, the voice of the people as expressed in the midterm elections.

How did a process that began with an aspiration of bipartisanship morph into a series of party-line votes that point toward impeachment - an outcome that, according to a recent CNN poll, 66 percent of Americans reject?

Republicans and Democrats point to a series of developments that hardened the position of GOP lawmakers in the House.

One was Mr. Clinton's "gobbledy gook" answers to 81 yes-or-no questions put to him by the House Judiciary Committee, says Marshall Wittmann at the Heritage Foundation. The president's perceived thumbing of his nose at Congress and the law has incensed GOP lawmakers and their base voters, who "have visceral feelings" on this issue, says Mr. Wittmann. Consequently, many Republicans are ignoring the polls and voting their conscience.

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