Washington, 9 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- For only the third time in its two centuries of existence, the U.S. House of Representatives has authorized an investigation of a president of the United States, an investigation that could result in the impeachment, and possibly the removal from office, of President Bill Clinton.
In two historic votes Thursday, the 435 members of the House first rejected a move by the minority Democratic Party to strictly limit the investigation and then adopted a resolution favored by the majority Republican Party that permits an open-ended inquiry with no time limit.
The action means that the issue will be referred back to the House Judiciary Committee -- which has oversight responsibility for impeachment matters. The committee will investigate "whether sufficient grounds exist for the House of Representatives to exercise its constitutional power to impeach William Jefferson Clinton, president of the United States of America."
Following the votes, Clinton told reporters he hopes "that we can now move forward in this process in a way that is fair, that is constitutional, and that is timely."
The president said: "It is in the hands of Congress and the people of this country, ultimately in the hands of God. There is nothing I can do."
An investigation by a special government prosecutor of Clinton's conduct in connection with a sexual relationship the president had with a former White House assistant is what may place Clinton's presidency at risk.
The prosecutor submitted his findings to the Judiciary Committee last month. The committee passed by a 21-16 party-line vote the resolution asking the full House to approve a formal impeachment inquiry. The committee contends there are 15 possible reasons to impeach the president that should be investigated.
Among the most serious charges against Clinton is an allegation that he committed perjury -- that is lying while under legal oath -- in denying that he was having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.
Clinton has admitted that he had what he called an improper relationship with the woman but he says his actions do not deserve impeachment. Clinton is a Democrat, and while many of his fellow party members in the House deplored his extra-marital conduct and his initial denials of the charges against him, they also believe the Republican Party is exploiting the controversy for political gain.
However, Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Illinois) told the House Thursday that the only issue was a search for truth. Said Hyde:
"And so here today, having received the referral and 17 cartons of supportive material from the independent counsel, the question asks itself: Shall we look further, or shall we look away?
"I respectfully suggest we must look further by voting for this resolution and thus commencing an inquiry into whether or not the president has committed impeachable acts. We don't make any judgments. We don't make any charges. We simply begin a search for truth. You will hear from our opponents that, yes, we need to look further but do it our way. Their way imposes artificial time limits, limits our inquiry to the Lewinsky matter, and requires us to establish standards for impeachment that have never been established before, certainly not in the Nixon impeachment proceedings, which we're trying to follow to the letter."
The 16 Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee then proposed a resolution on the House floor Thursday calling for an inquiry, but limiting its scope only to the Lewinsky matter and setting a deadline of December 31 for its completion.
Arguing for the Democratic option, Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Pennsylvania), said: "The president betrayed his wife; he did not betray the country. God help this nation if we fail to recognize the difference."
However, Congressman Paul McHale, also of Pennsylvania, the first congressional Democrat to call for Clinton's resignation, said the president was guilty of "repeated deceit under oath," and had "deceived the American people" about his conduct.
That Democratic resolution was voted down 236-198.
The resolution drafted by Hyde and the other 20 Republicans on the committee was then passed by the House by a 258-176 vote. That result meant that 30 Democrats joined the 228 House Republicans in approving the Hyde resolution.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Joseph Lockhart said the process had been "infected with politics." Lockhart said, "it should be a serious constitutional effort and as we move forward, it's our hope that the seriousness and the constitutional nature of it returns."
Hyde, who will oversee the inquiry, pledged a scrupulous approach to the inquiry and asked his Democratic colleagues to work with the Republican majority. Hyde also made it clear that the inquiry need not be restricted to Clinton's involvement with Lewinsky.
The word impeachment is defined as making an accusation against someone or charging a public official with improper conduct in office. The political process of impeachment in the U.S. was adapted from the British parliamentary system of government. The U.S. Constitution grants the "sole power" of impeachment to the House.
The last presidential impeachment inquiry was authorized in 1974, when Democrats controlled the House and Republican Richard Nixon was president. Nixon resigned before impeachment proceedings started.
The only other president to face the possibility of removal was Andrew Johnson, who became president in 1865 following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The Senate came within one vote of removing him in 1868.
Congress is expected to adjourn for the year by this weekend at the latest. All 435 House seats are up for election on November 3, and members running for re-election want to return to their home districts to campaign. House Judiciary Committee hearings and a vote by the full House on any articles of impeachment would not take place until next year. A Senate trial and vote of two-thirds of its members would be required to remove Clinton from office.