Washington, 17 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. House of Representatives is poised to decide whether President Bill Clinton should become only the second president in the nearly 230-year history of the nation to be impeached.
The debate has now been postponed because of developments in Iraq. In due course the 435 members of the House are will debate a resolution drafted by the House Judiciary Committee that calls for Clinton's impeachment. The president stands accused of abusing the authority of his office, of committing perjury and of obstructing justice. Clinton has denied these charges, which stem from a sexual relationship he had with a former White House assistant named Monica Lewinsky.
The U.S. adapted impeachment from England's medieval Parliament as a means of sanctioning senior government officials. Impeachment has been called the political equivalent of bringing criminal charges in an indictment.
While the impeachment process as outlined in the U.S. Constitution is meant in theory to be a bipartisan method of removing allegedly corrupt officials, the case of President Clinton is colored with partisan political tones. Clinton is a Democrat. The House of Representatives, and the 100-member Senate, are controlled by the Republican Party.
The votes in the Judiciary Committee to approve the four articles against Clinton were on party lines. In a report to the House justifying the four articles of impeachment, Judiciary Committee Republicans said Clinton "disgraced himself and the high office he holds."
Clinton's fellow Democrats have said they deplore Clinton's personal behavior but they also say he does not deserve to be impeached for it.
A report by the committee's Democrats said: "We do not believe that the nature of the misconduct is the mettle with which the founding fathers intended impeachments to be made."
Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to overturn the results of the 1996 presidential elections. Republicans reply that they are doing their constitutional duty.
A simple majority, that would be 218 votes if all members are present, is all that is needed to impeach Clinton on any of the four charges. Impeachment on any one charge would send the proceedings to the Senate, where Clinton would have to stand trial. A two-thirds majority of the Senate is required for conviction.
The White House seemed resigned on Wednesday to a House vote for impeachment as more and more House members publicly announced their intention to impeach Clinton.
Still, Vice President Al Gore canceled a trip to New Hampshire to stay in Washington, trying to rally support and stop Clinton from becoming only the second chief executive to be impeached. Said Gore:
"I believe on Capitol Hill there is still time for Democrats and Republicans to come together and embrace a bipartisan compromise to seek a resolution that is both quick and fair and try to turn away from the bitter partisanship that we have seen so far."
If Clinton were to be convicted in the Senate, he would be removed from office and Gore would succeed him.
Only once in U.S. history has the House impeached a president. That occurred in 1868 against President Andrew Johnson, who escaped conviction in the Senate by one vote. In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee prepared articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon, but he resigned before the full House could debate them.
There were unconfirmed reports late Wednesday that the House might postpone the vote on impeachment if President Clinton orders airstrikes against Iraq.
Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde, (R-Illinois), had raised the idea of postponing the impeachment vote. He said, "I think it would be awkward to have an impeachment vote during a bombing in Iraq."