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Washington Journal: House Begins Impeachment Inquiry

Washington, 8 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Today the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives will begin debating whether to proceed with a full-scale, formal impeachment inquiry of President Bill Clinton, a process that could lead to his removal from office.

There are very few, if any, in Washington who believe that the House will vote down the motion to proceed with an investigation. The president is a member of the Democratic Party. The House has 228 Republican Party members, 206 Democrats and one independent who usually votes with the Democrats. The motion to move forward with the impeachment inquiry was written by the Republican majority on the House Judiciary Committee, which is responsible for overseeing the impeachment process.

The president indirectly conceded defeat on the issue on Wednesday when he called on House members to cast "a vote of principle and conscience" on whether to approve the resolution. Clinton said to reporters at the White House:

"I think the vote should be a vote of principle. It's up to others to decide what happens to me, and ultimately it's going to be up to the American people to make a clear statement there. But what I am more concerned about today, by far, is that they cast some votes necessary to advance the cause of our people."

Impeachment is a complicated process that, in the American system, has its roots in the British parliamentary system of government. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines impeachment as making an accusation against someone or charging a public official with improper conduct in office.

The U.S. Constitution grants the "sole power" of impeachment to the House. However, it is not the end of a process but only a step along the way. If a majority of the House votes to impeach a president, the proceedings then move to the 100-member U.S. Senate for a trial on the charges raised. A minimum of two-thirds of the Senate must vote to convict a president, or any other federal official subject to the impeachment process.

The reason the House is debating whether to proceed with a full investigation is because the Judiciary Committee agreed that there were 15 potential grounds for impeachment. These charges stem from a sexual relationship that Clinton had with a former White House assistant two years ago.

The most serious of these accusations claim that Clinton committed perjury to keep the affair a secret and that he also allegedly obstructed justice and tried to influence witnesses.

Clinton has admitted that he had an improper relationship with the woman, Monica Lewinsky, and that he "misled" people about that relationship. The president, however, says he did nothing to deserve impeachment. He has appealed several times for forgiveness though, and he has also accused Republicans of using the entire incident for partisan political gain.

Even though many of Clinton's fellow Democrats condemned his personal conduct, many party members in Congress support his view that Republicans are exploiting the issue for political reasons. All 435 seats in the House are up for election on November 3.

Political commentators say the looming election has made the impeachment issue more difficult for House Democrats because they do not want to be viewed by the electorate as supporting Clinton's behavior.

The Democratic strategy now is an effort to limit the impeachment inquiry itself and set a deadline for concluding it. The Democratic members met Wednesday to try and draft some alternative proposals that would restrict the investigation. However, comments to reporters after that session indicated that many Democrats will support the resolution.

Democratic Congressman Timothy Roemer of Indiana, for example, said: "This cannot be a vote where you try to defend the president of your own party." And Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher of California said she might vote for the resolution to get an inquiry moving.

Congressman James Moran of Virginia said: "If the vote represents a partisan split, then the November election is likely to be a referendum on the president. I don't think that's in the long-term best interests of the Democratic party."

And Congressman Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania said that despite his party's efforts, "I would not be surprised to see 50 or 60" Democrats voting for the resolution.

The White House meanwhile denied that Clinton was engaged in an intensive lobbying campaign. Press secretary Joe Lockhart said the president had called a half-dozen lawmakers in the last few days, and that half of those were return calls to members who had called him.

While there are no current plans in the Judiciary Committee to range beyond Clinton's actions in the Lewinsky matter, Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Illinois) has said consideration would be given to any potentially impeachable matter. There is also no time limit for completing the inquiry. Clinton's term of office expires in January 2001.

If the resolution is approved, possibly today or Friday, the matter is referred back to the Judiciary Committee, which would investigate the charges, possibly holding hearings at which evidence might be presented and witnesses called to testify.

After those hearings, the committee could draw up what are called articles of impeachment, which amount to formal charges, that would then be presented to the entire House for debate and vote.