Washington, 20 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Majority Republicans and Minority Democrats on the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee wasted little time starting a partisan battle Thursday as the committee opened its hearing that could result in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and his possible removal from office.
Democrats denounced the hearings as unfair and biased against the president. Republicans said they were only doing their constitutional duty.
Spectators and congressional staff filled every seat in the hearing room and spilled into the hallway as Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Illinois) gaveled just the third presidential impeachment inquiry in the 200-plus year history of the U.S. into session. No fewer than nine U.S. television networks broadcast all or part of the proceedings.
The opening day of the inquiry was dominated by testimony from and questioning of the independent government prosecutor whose investigation of Clinton brought the impeachment case to the House.
In a two-hour and 16-minute statement, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr charged that President Clinton "misused his authority and power" to impede civil and criminal cases against him. He said that Clinton's actions over the last year constituted "a pattern of obstruction that is fundamentally inconsistent with the president's duty to faithfully execute the law."
Starr claims the president broke the law in an effort to coverup a sexual relationship he had with a former White House assistant named Monica Lewinsky. Clinton admits he had what he called an improper relationship with Lewinsky. But he also says he did nothing that warrants impeachment, a step that could lead to the ultimate sanction against a sitting president -- the forced removal from office if he is convicted after a trial in the U.S. Senate.
Clinton is a Democrat, and his supporters have accused Starr of pursuing a campaign on behalf of Republicans to bring Clinton down. Republicans hold the majority on the Judiciary Committee and also in the full 435-member House by a margin of 223-211.
In a statement to the press Thursday after Starr finished his opening statement, one of the president's personal attorneys -- Gregory Craig -- said: "There was nothing new in Mr. Starr's two-hour presentation. He offered no new evidence, no new information, and no new explanations for his tactics. "
Clinton is not required to attend the hearings. He left Washington on Wednesday for a working visit to Japan and South Korea.
The partisan nature of the hearing was apparent within minutes of Chairman Hyde's opening remarks. Congressman William Delahunt (D-Massachusetts) interrupted Hyde and submitted a motion to grant extra time to the president's lawyers for questioning of Starr. Hyde had allotted 30 minutes. Delahunt asked for 90 minutes.
Hyde then offered an explanation for the organization of the hearing. He said:
"The hearing today is not a trial nor is it White House versus Ken Starr or Republican versus Democrat. Rather, the hearing today is another step in our attempt to carry out our constitutional duty to determine whether facts exist which indicate that the president of the United States committed impeachable offenses. If this committee and the full House determine the president has committed an impeachable offense, a trial may be held in the Senate. With this in mind, the chair believes the time allotments for questioning are eminently fair. "
Other Democrats, however, continued to challenge the time allotment and the motion to extend the question time was finally defeated in a straight 21-16 party line vote.
Clinton's counsel Craig said the procedural vote showed that, there was nothing new in the process. Craig said: "The process, unfortunately, remains bitterly partisan and, in our view, profoundly unfair to the president."
When Starr finally got the opportunity to begin, he charged that the critical element of the case against Clinton centers around what Starr called abuse of power. He said:
"... It bears mention that well before January 1998, the president used government resources and prerogatives to pursue his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The evidence suggests that the president used his secretary Betty Currie, a government employee, to facilitate and conceal the relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The president used White House aides and the United States ambassador to the United Nations in his effort to find Ms. Lewinsky a job at a time when it was foreseeable -- even likely -- that she would be a witness in the Jones case. And the president used a government attorney -- Bruce Lindsey -- to assist his personal legal defense during the Jones case.
"In short, the evidence suggests that the president repeatedly used the machinery of government and the powers of his office to conceal his relationship with Monica Lewinsky from the American people, from the judicial process in the Jones case, and from the grand jury."
Starr also dismissed Democratic suggestions he had no right to investigate the Lewinsky affair. Obstruction of justice "is not a private matter," he declared. In a public statement about the affair last August, Clinton had condemned the investigation as an intrusion into his personal life.
However, Starr said on Thursday that, "The evidence further suggests that the president, in the course of these efforts, misused his authority and power as president and contravened his duty to faithfully execute the laws. That too is not a private matter." Starr reminded the committee that only the House of Representatives has the constitutional authority to impeach a president. He said that he was only complying with a congressional request by testifying.
When Starr finished, the senior Democrat on the committee -- Congressman John Conyers of Michigan -- called Starr a "federally paid sex policeman spending millions of dollars to trap an unfaithful spouse." Conyers charged that the prosecutor was fixated with getting Clinton.
Said Conyers: "It is not acceptable to force mothers to testify against their daughters, to make lawyers testify against their clients, to require Secret Service agents to testify against the people they protect, or to make bookstores tell what books people read. I and many others believe that Mr. Starr has crossed the line into obsession."
There is no indication how long the opening phase of the inquiry will last. Hyde has said he wants to conclude before the end of the year, but the committee plans to call at least four new witnesses, including Clinton lawyer Robert Bennett and presidential confidant Bruce Lindsey.
The committee also planned to question Daniel Gecker, the lawyer for Clinton accuser Kathleen Willey, and Nathan Landow, a Maryland Democrat who had contacts with Mrs. Willey. She has accused the president of making a sexual advance inside the White House. Clinton has denied that accusation.
If the committee decides there is evidence of impeachable offenses, it would prepare what are called articles of impeachment -- which amounts to charges against the president. These would be debated and voted on by the entire House. A simple majority would be required to impeach the president.
If that happens, the case moves to the 100-member Senate, where the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court would preside over a trial. A two-thirds majority is required for conviction.
Only one president, Andrew Johnson in 1865, has been impeached. He escaped conviction in the Senate by one vote. Articles of impeachment were prepared against President Nixon in 1974, but Nixon resigned before the case reached the floor of the House.