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Washington Journal: The U.S. Impeachment Drama -- A Primer

Washington, 17 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. House of Representatives convenes at 1600 Prague time today to debate whether President Bill Clinton should be impeached, a process that could lead to his removal from office. What follows is a summary of what is involved and what is at stake in the proceedings.

MEANING - According to standard American dictionaries, "impeach" means to challenge or discredit a person; to challenge the practices or honesty of someone; to accuse and to bring before the proper tribunal on charges of wrongdoing. Impeachment has been described as the political equivalent of a criminal indictment.

ORIGIN - In the U.S. political system, the roots of impeachment reach to the 14th Century parliamentary system in England. Impeachment was used to remove the king's ministers or agents who were believed by Parliament to have broken the law. In medieval England, the king himself was considered incapable of wrongdoing and could not be impeached.

LIABILITY - When the former British colonies established themselves as an independent nation -- the United States of America -- the Constitution it adopted in 1789 declared that: "The President, Vice-President, and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors. Alexander Hamilton, one of the authors of the Constitution, said impeachment was to be used "as a method of national inquest into the conduct of public men."

AUTHORITY - The Constitution states that the authority to impeach a government official rests with the House of Representatives alone. There are no specific instructions on how impeachment proceedings start, but they customarily begin in the Judiciary Committee. In the case of President Clinton, the Judiciary Committee has presented four charges -- called articles of impeachment -- against him. These four articles are detailed in a resolution of impeachment that was drafted by the Judiciary Committee last week.

THE ARTICLES - In summary, the four articles accuse Clinton of abusing the authority of his office, of committing perjury -- that is lying while under legal oath -- and of obstructing justice. Each of these articles will be debated separately by the entire House. These charges stem from a sexual relationship between Clinton and a former unpaid White House worker named Monica Lewinsky -- a relationship that Clinton called "inappropriate." Clinton has denied, however, that he committed perjury.

THE CAST - All 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and President Bill Clinton. There are two dominant political parties in the U.S. -- the Republicans, and the Democrats. There are 228 Republicans, 206 Democrats and one independent who routinely votes with the Democrats. Clinton is a Democrat. Clinton does not have to be present in the Congress and he is not expected to personally attend the debate.

PROCEDURE - The debate will be postponed because of developments in Iraq. The House had not yet set the rules for this debate. Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Illinois) would set the debate in motion. Congressman John Conyers (D-Michigan) will guide the response of Clinton's defenders. Parliamentary procedure would normally set aside one hour for the debate, but the Republican majority is expected to agree to a request from the Democrats to extend the time for members to speak about the issue. A vote is likely on Friday. A simple majority -- that would be 218 votes if all members are present -- is required for approval of an impeachment article. Approval of any one of the four articles would mean the impeachment of the president.

NEXT STEPS - If Clinton is impeached, he would have to stand trial in the 100-member U.S. Senate. The Republicans hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate and leaders have said they would want to hold the trial in the first week of January. The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court would preside over the trial. A team of House members would manage the prosecution. They probably would be led by Congressman Hyde. A Democratic senator would serve as the president's defense attorney. The president could appear in person, although that is not required or anticipated. Two-thirds of the Senate would have to agree for a conviction. If he were to be convicted, Clinton could not appeal and he would be barred from holding any other elected U.S. government post for life.

HISTORY - The full House has debated impeachment of a president only once. The House impeached President Andrew Johnson in 1868. The Senate failed to convict him by just one vote. The House Judiciary Committee prepared articles of impeachment against former President Richard Nixon in 1974, but Nixon resigned before the full House could debate them.