Washington, 31 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The second impeachment trial of a U.S. president in the nation's 220 year history might begin as soon as one week from today (Thursday) if preliminary plans hold up.
President Bill Clinton and his family left Washington on Wednesday to spend the New Year's holiday with friends as members of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee and the leaders of the Senate were finishing talks on how to proceed with the impeachment trial.
Impeachment has been described as the political equivalent of bringing charges in a criminal court. In the U.S., it's just a step away from the ultimate penalty for a president -- being forced from office.
Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on Dec. 19. The articles of impeachment -- the charges -- against Clinton accuse him of committing perjury and obstructing justice, all in an effort to conceal a sexual relationship with a former White House worker named Monica Lewinsky.
The president has denied committing perjury but he has conceded that he misled everyone about what he called an improper relationship with Lewinsky, a relationship Clinton says was wrong and that he is sorry about. However, he also says he should not be removed from office for this and says he will not resign.
Clinton, a Democrat, and his supporters inside and outside Congress also contend the entire impeachment process has been a partisan campaign to drive him from office. The House, which has the sole power to impeach a federal official, is controlled by the Republican Party. The votes on the two impeachment articles that were approved fell almost exactly along party lines. Two other charges against Clinton were rejected.
Under the U.S. Constitution, impeachment requires a trial before the 100-member Senate, which will act as a jury. The Senate is also controlled by the Republicans, by a 55-45 majority. However, in order to convict a president, two-thirds of the senators must find him guilty.
Few in Washington believe that 67 senators want to convict the president. The White House has been hoping that Senate leaders would agree to permanently adjourn the impeachment trial once it starts and then mete out a public reprimand to Clinton, a punishment he has said he would accept.
However, by Wednesday, it was clear that the Congress intends to move forward with a trial. Just how long it will last and what will happen remain to be determined.
Thirteen Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee, who will present the case against Clinton in the Senate, have been discussing the possibility of calling witnesses to testify, including Monica Lewinsky.
A senior member of the committee, Congressman William McCollum of Florida, told reporters that a consensus has emerged on calling witnesses. He said: "I am anticipating, based on everything we've discussed ... that there would be witnesses, we would present witnesses. I don't think there's any question about that."
However, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) has said he does not believe it is necessary to have witnesses at the trial. Lott, though, has also said he wants senators to vote on removing Clinton from office before seriously considering censure as an alternative. He said, "I would prefer that there would be a vote on the articles of impeachment." Senator Michael DeWine (R-Ohio) told reporters Wednesday that censuring Clinton would weaken the presidency. He contended that if there is no trial, the president's defenders would view the House impeachment vote as "a naked exercise of partisan political power," but would never have a chance to win acquittal for Clinton. He added that those who wish to remove the president will forever be denied the opportunity to be heard by the Senate.
The senator said, "Denied the closure of a trial, I fear that censure would not end the civic ugliness in which we are currently mired."
However, the White House has not completely given up hope for a censure resolution. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), said a censure would be "a powerful tool" against Clinton. Hatch said Monday that censure was "the only option left" because two-thirds of the Senate would not vote to convict Clinton and remove him from office.
Senators from both parties have said they wanted to avoid a trial longer than several weeks, and it was unclear whether a decision to allow witnesses would make a quick trial impossible.
Senator Lott reportedly has said that the trial could get its ceremonial start next Thursday. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist could begin the proceedings by administering an oath to the senators. The actual trial could start on the following Monday (Jan. 11).
Under Senate rules, once the trial formally begins, it would have to convene every day -- except Sunday -- at 1300 Washington time (1900 Prague time) until a decision is rendered. Senators are prohibited from speaking during the trial unless a senator wants to rise and offer a motion to adjourn the trial permanently. Such a motion would need only a simple majority to succeed.
Senate leaders hope the trial can be finished in one or two weeks. Many are afraid it will distract them from the nation's business, which includes the annual presidential report to the nation -- called the State of the Union message -- which Clinton plans to deliver to a joint session of Congress on Jan. 19.