Washington, 8 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- With the U.S. Constitution and the musty pages of a 130-year-old case to guide them, the U.S. Senate has begun a process that could end with removing an American president from office for the first time in history.
Using ceremonies not seen and language not heard in this century, the 100-member senate formally opened Thursday the trial of President Bill Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Senate leaders now say that the business of conducting the actual trial of the president will begin next Thursday.
Those two charges, called articles of impeachment, were brought against Clinton by a vote of the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 19. Clinton has denied the charges.
The dramatic proceedings began shortly after 1600 Prague time Thursday when Congressman Henry Hyde, a Republican from the state of Illinois who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, came before the senate to present the accusations.
"With the permission of the Senate, I will now read the Articles of Impeachment.
"House Resolution 611: Resolved, that William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, is impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors, and that the following Articles of Impeachment be exhibited to the United States Senate.
"Articles of Impeachment exhibited by the House of Representatives of the United States of America in the name of itself and of the people of the United States of America against William Jefferson Clinton, president of the United States of America, in maintenance and support of its impeachment against him for high crimes and misdemeanors."
Clinton and his supporters have asserted that the impeachment proceedings are driven by partisan politics and are an effort by his Republican Party opponents to oust him. Clinton is a Democrat. The vote in the House -- where the Republicans hold the majority -- to bring the perjury and obstruction charges against Clinton fell almost exactly along party lines. The House rejected two other charges against Clinton.
The Republicans say Clinton's alleged offenses stem from his effort to conceal a sexual relationship with a former White House worker named Monica Lewinsky. Clinton has apologized for what he called an improper relationship with the woman, but he says he has not committed any crimes. Clinton has said he is willing to accept a reprimand from the Senate for his personal conduct.
The constitution calls for a trial in the Senate when a president is impeached by the House. The rules call for the senators to serve as a jury. The chief justice of the United States presides over the trial. Two-thirds of the senate must vote him guilty for Clinton to be convicted. The Republicans hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate and there are few who believe Clinton will be convicted.
The trial, however, opened with required formalities. After the charges were read, the U.S. chief justice, William Rehnquist, was brought to the Senate where he took an oath to preside over the trial. Rehnquist then swore in the senators as jurors.
Rehnquist is 74 and has been a member of the U.S. Supreme Court for 27 years. He was named chief justice in 1986. Coincidentally, Rehnquist wrote a book about two famous 19th century impeachment cases, including the trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868. Johnson had been the only president to have been impeached. He was acquitted in his trial by one vote.
After the formalities, the Senate recessed to privately discuss how to proceed. Assistant Senate Majority Leader Donald Nickles of Oklahoma told reporters that the trial could be concluded by February 5.
White House spokesman Joseph Lockhart said the president did not watch any of the nationally televised proceedings. He also said the fact that the Senate still had not issued clear guidelines on how it would proceed was unfair to the president's defense.
Clinton's defense team was awaiting word on Thursday on a last-minute bid to keep witnesses and new evidence out of the trial by saying it would agree to base its defense solely on the case handed over by the House of Representatives.