Washington, 19 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives convenes today to begin a process that could end with the removal of President Bill Clinton from office.
The committee is meeting to determine whether what are called Articles of Impeachment should be prepared against Clinton because of charges raised in connection with a sexual relationship he had almost two years ago with a former White House assistant named Monica Lewinsky.
A highly charged atmosphere filled with partisan rancor hangs over the hearings following some bitter criticisms aimed by the White House at the Judiciary Committee.
Clinton is a Democrat. The other dominant U.S. political party, the Republicans, holds the majority in both the 435-member House and the 100-member Senate. This dominance gives the Republicans the chairmanship and majority of seats on all committees, including the Judiciary Committee.
Clinton will not be in Washington for the opening day of the hearings. He is not required to attend, but he left Washington on Wednesday anyway for Japan and South Korea. However, before Clinton left, spokesman Joseph Lockhart accused the Republicans of hypocrisy and fundamental unfairness.
The White House and Clinton's fellow Democrats in the House are upset by Republican plans to limit the Democrats' questioning of witnesses and to possibly expand the hearing beyond the accusations stemming from Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky.
The main witness at today's hearing will be Judge Kenneth Starr. He is the independent government prosecutor who was appointed more than four years ago to look into allegations of wrongdoing in connection with a failed real estate investment made by Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, when Clinton was the governor of the southern state of Arkansas in the 1980s.
No charges were ever brought against Clinton in that investigation. However, Starr alleges that Clinton committed perjury and other illegal acts while trying to cover up his relationship with Lewinsky.
The president admitted that he had what he called an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky, but he says he is not guilty of any illegal acts and that he should not be impeached. Clinton's supporters in Congress have said they deplore his personal conduct but agree that he has done nothing to deserve removal from office.
Starr is expected to spend about two hours reviewing the findings of his investigation and summarizing the report he sent to Congress in September in which he suggested 11 possible offenses against Clinton that could lead to impeachment.
Democrats have been sharply critical of Starr. He has been accused of leading a Republican campaign to bring Clinton down. Starr has denied charges of partisan behavior.
Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri), has even questioned the relevance of Starr as a Judiciary Committee witness.
Gephardt said earlier this week that Congress faces, "an inexplicable process with a hearing with Ken Starr, doing what I am not sure. I guess he is going to read his report. If that's what he is doing, it's surely a waste of time. Everybody on the committee is fully capable and probably has already his report. So I don't know what he is coming there to say. He is not a witness to any of these events. All he can do is read his report."
Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Illinois) told the president's legal staff they will be allowed 30 minutes to question Starr. The White House had asked for 90 minutes. Questions from the president's lawyers would follow any questions from the 21 Republicans and 16 Democrats on the committee.
Hyde also told the White House it won't be allowed to question Starr about the various controversies surrounding his investigation, such as a judge's inquiry into whether prosecutors leaked secret grand jury material to the press. In a letter to the White House, Hyde said: "You will not be permitted to inquire into other matters not bearing on the question of impeachment. Efforts to utilize these proceedings as a forum to inquire about nongermane matters, such as investigations into the conduct of the investigation, that are pending before other bodies, shall not be permitted."
Clinton's spokesman called this unfair and deeply disturbing. He also renewed allegations of collusion between the Republicans and Starr. Said Lockhart:
"I think, secondly, what we're seeing here, although the Republicans have talked about being bipartisan and the independent counsel has talked about his independence, we seem to see a situation now where they're walking in lockstep; where the Republicans say that they're about to expand this probe, and then we see in the paper that the independent counsel is about to expand his statement. The Republicans should be working in a bipartisan way, and the independent counsel should be truly independent; he should not be working with the Republicans on this."
While Starr's report paved the way for the Judiciary Committee hearings, the constitutional power to impeach rests solely with the House. If the committee votes to draft articles of impeachment against Clinton, the full House would have to approve them by simple majority for impeachment to take effect.
If the House does vote to impeach, Clinton would then stand trial on the charges in the Senate. Two-thirds of the Senate would have to approve a conviction, which would mean automatic removal from office with no appeal.
Only one president, Andrew Johnson in 1865, was impeached. He was saved from removal in the Senate by just one vote. Impeachment proceedings were started against former President Richard Nixon in 1974 but he resigned before articles of impeachment were voted on.