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Effect on Clinton's ability to lead

A long trial could distract the president on issues ranging from Social Security to foreign policy.

It's tough for a president to move his agenda when he's a lame duck. But it's even tougher when he's an impeached lame duck.

Already, President Clinton has been considerably weakened by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. If the House votes Thursday to impeach and the Senate follows up with a trial, his power will only diminish further, say political analysts.

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Everything from Social Security reform to America's credibility overseas would be undermined, they warn, and the longer the Senate grappled with the case, the harder it would be for Mr. Clinton to get anything done.

"Every day brings him that much closer to being a lame duck," says Robert Dallek, a presidential historian in Washington. "If it's bad now, it will be even worse if he faces a trial."

The trial is the critical thing, say analysts, especially if it takes the four to six months that some lawmakers and constitutional scholars predict. That would effectively shutter the window of opportunity that the president and Congress have before they switch into campaign 2000 mode in September.

In that window, the president hopes to fix Social Security and pass a patients' bill of rights. "The distraction is the biggest matter," says presidential scholar George Edwards, at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Another spinoff from an impeachment and a long trial could be severe partisanship. The intense division between Democrats and Republicans that produced party-line votes on articles of impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee - and which might tip the full Congress to do the same - may set the tone for the remainder of the president's term.

"The right-wing folks will see Clinton as weakened, and will fight him tooth and nail," says Mr. Dallek. Rather than pragmatism in the next Congress, as promised by House Speaker-elect Bob Livingston (R) of Louisiana, "you will see a stiffening of the backs," he says.

He points to Mr. Livingston's refusal to allow the House to vote on censure as the first detour from bipartisanship.

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Clinton may play hardball

But a former Clinton administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, sees the president hardening his stance as well. "If this [impeachment] goes forward, it's not like getting beat on health care," he says. "I can't believe there won't be some deep, deep feelings."

The former aide suggests Clinton might abandon Social Security reform - which would require bipartisan support - and instead look for some other issue to rally the American public. Analysts say a president needs great moral authority to even touch Social Security - and Clinton doesn't have it at the moment.

Additionally, what concerns some scholars is the impact of a protracted government crisis on foreign policy.

They worry that Clinton will lose credibility in dealing with world leaders - traditionally a focus of a president's last two years.

Others, though, such as Mr. Edwards, doubt that US allies will question Clinton's commitment to foreign policy.

He does worry, however, that opportunistic rogue states will seek to take advantage of a president who's down. "I'm much more worried about the Saddam Husseins of the world," says Edwards.

Some Clinton critics have seized on the president's standing abroad to bolster their case for impeachment. House majority whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas said last week that the president "can't be believed" and that's why the Iraqi leader "jerks his chain all the time."

Maybe no gridlock

Still, the impeachment scenario does not necessarily have to end in a total withering of the Clinton presidency.

Independent political analyst Charles Cook has a "hunch" that the conventional wisdom of gridlock and partisanship in the next two years may be wrong. Clinton, he says, will "move heaven and earth" to overturn the legacy of scandal. Republicans, meanwhile, will want to peel off the "do-nothing Congress" label that voters stuck on them in the November elections, he says.

Mr. Cook cautions Americans to remember the two lessons of this year: "Never write Bill Clinton off, and things always look bigger and more damaging immediately, than their long-term reality is."

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